Publication Details

McNamara, L. J. and Quilter, J. (2015). Public intoxication in NSW: the contours of criminalisation. The Sydney Law Review, 37 (1), 1-35.

Link to publisher version (URL)

Sydney Law Review

Additional Publication Information

With permission from 'The Sydney Law Review'


This article traces the history of the regulation of public intoxication in New South Wales (NSW) from the early 1800s to the present. We argue that although the formal legal status of public drunkenness and drinking has changed over time, and although different approaches have been prominent at different points in the history of NSW, public intoxication has been consistently and continuously criminalised for almost two centuries, despite official ‘decriminalisation’ in 1979. Shifts in regulatory modalities — including offence definitions, police powers, the involvement of local councils and enforcement practices — have been associated with significant changes in how the nature of the problem of public intoxication is conceived and how the persona of the ‘public drunk’ is constructed. Perceived at different times as immoral, annoying and pitiable, most recently, individuals who are intoxicated in public are increasingly seen as ‘dangerous’ and as posing a risk to other members of the community. The threat to public safety and the fear that innocent members of the public might be subjected to random violence have become major drivers of policymaking and law reform in this area, and have produced a less forgiving and more punitive approach to public intoxication.