Australian Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay argues for a review of the human rights impacts of Australia’s COVID-19 response
Lorraine Finlay writes for the Australian
Figures from Revenue NSW show NSW Police issued nearly 62,000 fines for breaches of public health orders totalling $56.4m from the start of the pandemic to April 2022, including 3840 fines to children under 18 years. Most of these fines remain unpaid, with the average amount outstanding being $900 – more than the weekly national minimum wage.
One of the fundamental principles when curtailing rights during a crisis is the need for measures to be implemented fairly and equitably. Yet the evidence suggests it was our most disadvantaged areas and most vulnerable groups who were disproportionately fined for breaching public health orders. We risk further embedding poverty and disadvantage if we insist on enforcing these fines without subjecting them to additional review.
We simply can’t “build back better” if we are leaving the most vulnerable behind. It is true that public health orders were important for protecting community health and safety, and people should not be able to break the law without consequences. In this case, however, the enforcement of Covid-19 fines needs to be reviewed to reassure people about the system’s fairness.
The Redfern Legal Centre has launched a test case in the Supreme Court of NSW arguing its clients’ Covid-19 fines were invalid because they lack sufficient detail about the claimed offences. When these concerns about validity are combined with public health orders changing constantly throughout the pandemic, the NSW Police Commissioner telling officers “to put community policing to the side” and to “go high-level enforcement”, and significant anecdotal evidence of fines being imposed incorrectly and inconsistently, it is little wonder public goodwill and trust have been eroded.