A coalition of legal and civil society organisations have called for a four month pause on COVID fine enforcement action, as new figures reveal communities with high numbers of people facing disadvantage have been hit with the most fines, and real doubts about whether many have been issued correctly and fairly.
Statistics obtained by Redfern Legal Centre reveal that almost 50,000 COVID-19 fines were issued for breaches of Public Health Orders, with more than one third remaining unpaid.
Ninety nine per cent of these unpaid fines have been escalated to enforcement, which can include suspension of drivers’ licences, cancellation of vehicle registration, seizure of property, deduction of wages or court summons.
These figures have come to light as legal services report that a significant proportion of their clients have been fined in circumstances when they appear not to have committed an offence (for example where they had a ‘reasonable excuse’ to leave their home) or would have been more appropriately cautioned or given a direction.
The groups are particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact of Public Health Order fines on groups already experiencing hardship, such as people experiencing homelessness and people with psychosocial disability.
The top 7 NSW LGAs where PHO fines were issued (adjusted for population size) are Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Moree Plains, Walgett, Bourke and Gunnedah. This also raises concerns about the impact of fines on regional and Aboriginal communities.
Read the open letter to Minister for Finance, Damien Tudehope and Attorney General Mark Speakman at www.piac.asn.au.
Jonathon Hunyor, PIAC CEO:
‘We have had real concerns about the heavy-handed and inflexible approach taken by police to issuing COVID fines. We now have many people who will struggle to pay fines and need time to get help and consider their options.’
‘Lockdowns have made it hard for people to get help, particularly in more remote areas. Pausing enforcement action to give people a reprieve over the holiday period would be a fair and compassionate move.’
Joanna Shulman, Redfern Legal Centre CEO:
‘Redfern Legal Centre is deeply concerned about the impact of significant COVID-19 fines on people already experiencing heightened vulnerability. For many of our clients, having additional fines debt over the holidays will have serious consequences.’
‘The data RLC has uncovered clearly shows that a significant number of people are struggling to resolve their fines, many of which we believe have been wrongly issued. We are asking for a reprieve over the holiday period to give people additional time needed to seek advice and obtain a fair and just resolution of their fines.’
Katherine McKernan, Homelessness NSW CEO:
‘People experiencing homelessness, and particularly Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness, are often disproportionately fined and least able to pay these fines. During the COVID lockdown, people experiencing homelessness were also less able to adhere to the stay at home orders and needed support to stay safe from COVID rather than being fined simply because they had nowhere to go.’
Serena Ovens, Physical Disability Council of NSW CEO:
‘People with disability, particularly those of indigenous background, have been disproportionately, and often incorrectly, affected by fines handed out during the COVID pandemic. PDCN calls on the NSW government to pause escalating enforcement procedures and allow those who already experience double disadvantage to seek assistance in addressing unpaid fines.’
Signatories to the open letter:
Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited
AbSec – NSW Child, Family and Community Peak Aboriginal Corporation
Accessible Diversity Services Limited
Animal Defenders Office
Australian Centre for Disability Law
Central Tablelands and Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre
Community Legal Centres NSW
CORE Community Services
Council for Intellectual Disability
Counterpoint Community Services
Far West Community Legal Centre
First Peoples Disability Network (Australia)
Inner Sydney Voice
Intellectual Disability Rights Service
Kingsford Legal Centre
Macarthur Legal Centre
Mid North Coast Legal Centre
Mount Druitt Ethnic Communities Agency (MECA)
Muslim Women Australia
NSW Council of Social Service
Newtown Neighbourhood Centre
North & North West Community Legal Service
Penrith Disabilities Resource Centre (PDRC)
Physical Disability Council of NSW
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Redfern Legal Centre
Refugee Advice and Casework Service
Regional Disability Advocacy Service
South Eastern Community Connect (SECC)
South West Sydney Legal Centre
St Vincent de Paul Society NSW
Sydney Community Forum
SydWest Multicultural Services
The Fact Tree Youth Service
Warra Warra Legal Service
Women’s Domestic Court Advocacy Service