Revenue NSW figures show police issued nearly 62,000 fines totalling $56.4 million from March 2020 to April 2022 for various COVID public health order breaches.
Of these, 50,000 fines were issued between July and September last year for breaches such as not wearing masks, travelling further than five kilometres from home, gathering in groups, and breaking curfew in the 12 local government areas of concern, but most fines were written out as general breaches without specifying the offence.
Most fines are now at the enforcement phase, which means people could have their possessions seized, money taken from their bank accounts, their car registrations cancelled and their driver’s licences suspended.
Redfern Legal Centre solicitor Sam Lee said many people on low incomes could not afford to pay the fines, which were as high as $5000 at the height of the lockdown in 2021.
“People are struggling to keep up with the cost of living and these fines went up around 200 per cent during the pandemic,” Lee said.
However, Lee said in her experience people who elected to fight the fines in court were usually successful, often because police withdrew the charges after being shown why the fine was issued incorrectly.
“What we found with these COVID fines is a majority of them, in our experience, were not issued according to law, so it’s a due process issue rather than a public health issue,” she said.
“I don’t necessarily blame the police because the orders kept changing so rapidly that no one was keeping up properly. It was inevitable that the outcome was going to be badly issued fines.”
Nearly 3000 people representing $3.8 million in unpaid fines have chosen to fight the penalty in court.
But Lee said many people could not take the risk of legal action because it then became criminal proceedings rather than a fine, and the court could impose a higher fine or a criminal record.