Thousands of vulnerable people, including children, still saddled with millions in COVID fine debt

The Law Society of NSW

The NSW Government should act urgently to review thousands of COVID fines, including some possibly issued in error, to the state’s most vulnerable populations.

President of the Law Society of NSW Joanne van der Plaat said she wrote last month to the Premier, Attorney General and Ministers for Finance and Aboriginal Affairs proposing practical steps to deal with unpaid fines issued under COVID-19 Public Health Orders (PHOs).

“The frequent and rapid amendments to PHOs means many of the fines may have been invalid. Some orders were amended multiple times during a day. That unfairness is exacerbated when many of those penalised are the most vulnerable in our community who have now amassed fine debt they are unable to pay,” Ms van der Plaat said.

“While Revenue NSW may be contacting vulnerable people and children to ‘provide support’ and possibly write off some fines, the Law Society considers all fines issued to children ought to be converted to formal cautions. The only option available for challenging a fine after refusal by Revenue NSW is to go to court. A loss there risks a conviction, an $11,000 fine and/or 6 months imprisonment. The consequences of a conviction can be life altering.”

The Law Society has brought to the Government’s attention figures obtained by the media under the Government Information Public Access Act to illustrate the disproportionate burden of these fines impacting areas that can afford it least.

“Many of the top fifteen per-capita locations where fines were issued during the Delta outbreak have high Aboriginal populations. These include the top three of Walgett, Brewarrina and Wilcannia. Eleven of these communities are counted among communities suffering the state’s highest level of social disadvantage.,” Ms van der Plaat said.

The Law Society acknowledges the enormous efforts of NSW’s legal assistance sector in helping vulnerable people have their fines reviewed, but Ms van der Plaat says more needs to be done.

“The Law Society implores the Government to resource adequately the legal assistance sector to continue this vital work to continue.”

A copy of the Law Society’s letter dated 27 April 2022 accompanies this statement.

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