Marginalised and disadvantaged groups bore the brunt of the state’s lockdown fines, according to community legal centres.
Christopher Knaus reports for Guardian Australia
Lawyers representing many of the tens of thousands of residents in NSW who were fined for breaches of public health orders say the state’s enforcement has been riddled with problems. In some cases fines have been issued erroneously and reviews have given wildly varied results.
Rohan Pank was fined in August 2021 for sitting in a park 1km from his home while taking a short break from exercising, he said, while Sydney was in lockdown. Weeks later, the government would clarify that “sitting for relaxation” was considered outdoor recreation.
Pank filed two reviews and received wildly different responses.
Both reviews failed and Pank took his case to the NSW supreme court, along with two other plaintiffs, with the help of Redfern Legal Centre. The test case, if successful, could have consequences for tens of thousands of other NSW residents fined by police.
“Maybe I’m not the most disadvantaged person who’s been affected by it, but I’m trying to stand up for everyone and stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” Pank said.
Within days of initiating proceedings, the fine against Pank was withdrawn. No reason was given to Pank.
An alliance of community legal centres have repeatedly called for the state government to cease chasing debts, citing the impact on disadvantaged groups and the clear problems in enforcement. The state government has so far shown no willingness to change tact.
Roughly 45,000 fines issued in 2021-22 are now overdue, according to NSW government data, and the vast majority are being enforced.
The fines are also having a significant impact on Indigenous Australians. Data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre, which shows a breakdown of enforcement across LGAs, shows areas with significant Indigenous communities have received the largest volume of fines per capita. That includes Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Moree Plains, Walgett, Bourke and Gunnedah.
In a statement, Revenue NSW denied that its review system was inconsistent and said individual cases were complex. It said it “encourages customers to reach out to discuss individual circumstances and reasoning behind final decisions”.