As NSW continues to emerge from the pandemic, and the Government focuses on a return to “business as usual”, thousands of people across the state are still saddled with debt from fines.
Keely McDonough reports for LSJ
Legal practitioners are calling for a global solution to the millions of dollars that remain unpaid, and greater support for the vulnerable communities struggling to cope.
The NSW Government relied on a “punitive and policing” response to enforce restrictions, in the form of imposing fines.
The legal assistance sector saw a big wave of clients seeking advice about their COVID-related fines during the peak lockdown months of 2021. But services are now grappling with soaring demand again as unpaid fines fall into enforcement, with Revenue NSW starting to apply sanctions, including licence suspensions in many cases.
On-the-spot tickets ranged from $500 for smaller offences like failing to wear a mask to $1000, $3000 or $5000 for breaching stay-at-home orders.
Samantha Lee, senior solicitor with Redfern Legal Centre’s Police Accountability Practice, told LSJ it was “impossible” to try to keep up.
Redfern Legal Centre put out fact sheets about the orders every week so that people could understand what the orders meant. It was exhausting. I’m glad we did it, because we identified huge problems with the fines system, particularly the review system,” Lee says.
“It was an administrative mess. We were trying to navigate it, other lawyers were too, and the police were trying to navigate it on the ground. Then you have the review system trying to make sense of any appeals coming in.”
There are two avenues for appealing COVID-related fines: an internal review with Revenue NSW or court election, which is ultimately fraught with risks, Lee says. She is representing numerous clients in the local court, has engaged in high level discussions with Revenue NSW about Redfern Legal Centre’s concerns regarding fines, and has written to the Premier.
“We are doing everything we can to try and get some justice,” she says.
Most notably, Lee is representing three plaintiffs in an administrative law case filed in the Supreme Court in July, brought against the NSW Police Commissioner and the Commissioner of Fines Administration.
The clients all received fines ranging from $1000 to $3000 during the 2021 lockdown for allegedly breaching stay-at-home orders. The plaintiffs will argue that their fines are not valid because the penalty notices do not provide enough detail, as required under the Fines Act.
The difficulty with these fines is that people didn’t even know what the police had to prove. Because the fines were so vague and non-specific, they didn’t even know how to appeal, even if they were going to take it to court,” Lee says.
“Policing impacted on a wide range of people, from all areas. Those that never had any interaction with the justice system before were suddenly in this position where they had been issued with a fine and had to navigate the system. In some ways, it meant that people were more aware of police accountability and the need for our practice.
“During a crisis, it is so important that the rule of law is adhered to. The thing that keeps a democracy going is making sure the rule of law is applied correctly.”