Aboriginal Legal Service NSW urges fines for public health rule breaches be withdrawn or converted to cautions
Christopher Knaus reports for Guardian Australia
Indigenous Australians are having their driving licences cancelled and facing crushing debts due to the New South Wales government’s “punitive”, flawed and often erroneous enforcement of outstanding Covid fines, lawyers have warned.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW has renewed its plea for fines issued for Covid rule breaches to be withdrawn or converted to formal cautions, warning they are having a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.
Roughly 45,000 fines issued in 2021-22 are now overdue, according to NSW government data, and the vast majority are being enforced. That’s despite evidence that some fines have either been issued erroneously, are not being tested properly in internal review processes, or are being enforced unfairly.
The Redfern Legal Centre is representing three plaintiffs in a NSW supreme court case challenging Covid fines, which could have much broader ramifications for the tens of thousands of fines issued during the pandemic.
One of those plaintiffs, Rohan Pank, sued after police and the state’s administrator of fines refused to cancel a fine he received for sitting in a park during lockdown.
Data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre shows that in July, August, and September last year, 47,414 fines were issued for breaches of public health orders, creating $43,234,340 in debt.
Late last year, an alliance of legal services urged the state government to pause its enforcement of Covid fines, warning many had been issued incorrectly. They told NSW finance minister, Damien Tudehope, that the fines were disproportionately hurting Indigenous Australians, homeless groups and people living with a disability.
The Redfern Legal Centre has also previously said that the majority of the cases it was dealing with involved fines that should arguably be withdrawn.
“We are of the view that in the majority of the cases coming to us, the police have applied the law incorrectly,” Samantha Lee, Redfern Legal Centre’s senior solicitor in police accountability, said in October.