COVID fines issued to children could breach international law says UNSW Law academic

NSW government suggestions that children as young as 10 could work off COVID fines have been described as “outrageous” and could be in breach of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child.

The comments came from Dr Noam Peleg, senior lecturer at UNSW’s Faculty of Law & Justice. Much of Dr Peleg’s work has focused on international children’s rights law and its intersection with human rights law.

“The fines themselves are a violation of the Convention on the Rights of a Child. And working orders directed at children are a second, consequential, violation," Dr Peleg said.

In July, media outlets reported comments from Revenue NSW that around 8 per cent of the over 3800 COVID-19 fines issued to children were being resolved by Work Development Orders (WDOs) - or around 307 children. 

Dr Pang described the NSW measures as "far from compatible with international best practices."

Pang said that if children fail to pay the fine and have to undertake WDOs "there is a potential violation of the core guiding principles of the UN convention, which are the right to participation, the right to non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, and the right to have their best interests taken into consideration as a primary consideration."

"A child rights framework cannot support fining children and then forcing them to work off their fines," she said.

“Clearly, this policy has not considered the welfare of children from its inception."

In December, NSW Police data obtained by Redfern Legal Centre revealed that nearly 3000 COVID-19 fines totalling just over $2.1 million dollars had been issued to children aged 10-17 years since 1 July last year.
 The majority of these fines ranged in amount from $1000, $3000 and $5000.

A $5000 COVID-19 on-the-spot fine is more than triple the cost of a fine that can be imposed by the Children’s Court, which cannot exceed 10 penalty units ($1100).

Additional data published by the Guardian in July 2022 revealed that 501 COVID fines had been issued to children under 15 in the last financial year for not wearing or carrying a mask. 
Of these, 34 children were still working off unpaid fines debt through a WDO scheme.

WDOs are a useful tool to assist people experiencing vulnerability to work off fines debt they are unable to afford to pay, but they are unsuitable for vulnerable children.

“Cautions and education about the law should be the first port of call for police enforcing minor Public Health Order breaches, especially where children are concerned," RLC police accountability solicitor, Samantha Lee said.

Redfern Legal Centre is part of a coalition of concerned legal organisations calling for all COVID fines issued to children to be waived or converted to a caution.

Source/ further info

NSW COVID fines on kids could breach international law (UNSW Newsroom, 4 August 2022)

See also

NSW issued 501 fines to children under 15 in past year for not wearing or carrying mask (Guardian Australia, 29 July 2022)