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As Victoria returns to lockdown, new figures show more than 30,000 Covid-19 fines in the state remain unpaid.

By Denham Sadler.

Almost all Covid-19 fines remain unpaid

A Victorian police officer questions a driver at a vehicle checkpoint.
Credit: AAP / James Ross

When police stopped Melissa, she was driving back from hospital. Victoria was still in stage 4 lockdown and she had been to visit a cousin who was recovering after being assaulted by her partner. The police cautioned her for breaching stay-at-home orders and issued her with a fine for $1652.

Melissa, an Indigenous woman, tried to explain why she was driving. She had intended to collect her cousin at the hospital, so her relative would not have to go back to a violent partner, but her cousin was not ready to be discharged. Also in the car were Melissa’s partner and a friend. None of them had updated IDs with their current address, and all three were fined.

Melissa had been on Centrelink benefits and was about to start a full-time job as a carer. The size of the fine was all-encompassing, an insurmountable challenge: it has been looming over her for almost a year.

“I will struggle to pay the fine if it isn’t waived,” she says, asking that we not use her real name. “It’s been really stressful and I have a lot of anxiety about going outside. Even if my reason for leaving home is allowed under the rules, I get anxious because I had a reason to be out when the police gave me the fine.”

Melissa appealed the fine on compassionate grounds, but this was rejected, with no reason given. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) has now applied directly to the Department of Justice to intervene on the issue but is yet to receive a response.

“Surely the compassionate exemption should apply in a case like this,” VALS acting chief executive George Selvanera says. “We’ve got a poor woman who was trying to help her friend in a domestic violence situation being fined. She tried to appeal it and the answer was, ‘No, and we’re not going to tell you why.’ ”

In Victoria, just under 39,000 fines have been issued for breaching Covid-related restrictions. The bulk of these were handed out during the strict lockdown spanning July to September last year. The majority – 30,473 – remain unpaid.

After the 28-day payment deadline, these fines are passed on to Fines Victoria. A further penalty reminder notice is then issued, with a 21-day payment period. As of mid-June there were 24,516 notices registered with Fines Victoria for enforcement; less than 3500 have been paid in full, with a further 3303 currently on a payment plan.

After a final demand notice, Fines Victoria can exercise its powers to resolve the outstanding payment, which can include seizing possessions, cancelling licences, garnisheeing wages or government payments, and even jail time.

Of the unpaid fines, more than 1500 relate to youths aged under 18 years. About 10,000 of them apply to Victorians aged under 25.

Most of these fines are set at $1652, significantly higher than in other jurisdictions.

There are growing concerns that many of these fines were issued unfairly, and that there is not an adequate review system in place, independent from the police, for them to be waived.

Odette Shenfield, an outreach lawyer at the Fitzroy Legal Service, describes one client who was facing a mental health crisis during the lockdown last year and was having suicidal thoughts. They left their home to find a safe place, but were fined by police for breaching the public health orders.

“The stress of having no ability to pay that fine, along with the stress of already being in a difficult situation, was massive for that person,” Shenfield says.

She describes another case where a healthcare worker went for a walk with a friend who had recently been discharged from hospital. The man was fined $1652 for travelling unreasonably to exercise. His review was rejected by the police, with no individualised reason given.

Both of these fines were eventually withdrawn after they were escalated by lawyers, but Shenfield says there are likely to be many similar stories where the individual has not been able to speak with a lawyer and the fine remains hanging over them.

Even where fines may have been reasonably issued, community lawyers are concerned that marginalised members of society are being disproportionately affected and have no ability to pay them.

Community legal groups and some politicians are pushing for the establishment of an independent review mechanism and for the Covid-19 fines to be waived in cases of financial hardship. “We’re criminalising poverty and the inability to pay a fine,” Shenfield says. “The system has become extremely discriminatory.”

WEstjustice lawyer Shifrah Blustein says she is concerned that outstanding Covid-19 fines will have a damaging effect on thousands of Victorians, similar to the recent robo-debt scandal.

“We are concerned that the Covid fines may leave a similar legacy of distress and death because of the huge stress that such large fines place on people who were already struggling due to the pandemic as well as other financial and social hardship,” she says.

The local government area that received the most Covid-19 fines, besides the City of Melbourne, was Greater Dandenong, which is also the most multicultural and most disadvantaged area in the state.

Out of all Covid-19-related fines from 2020, 5 per cent were imposed on Indigenous Australians, despite Indigenous people making up less than 1 per cent of the state’s population. Those born in Sudan and South Sudan received 4 per cent of the fines, despite making up less than 0.05 per cent of the population.

The impact of these fines on Indigenous Victorians has been awful, George Selvanera says. “Having these excessive fines has become an incredible pressure. It really adds to that feeling of not being in control, of not feeling able to progress or make good positive life changes.”

There are concerns a similar situation is likely in New South Wales, where a major police compliance crackdown is running in Western Sydney, which includes three of the most diverse regions in the state.

Ongoing issues around communicating the public health measures to those who don’t speak English as their first language have also contributed to concerns that many people receiving the fines simply don’t know that what they are doing is illegal.

Earlier this year, the Victorian government signalled it was planning to launch an independent review system for these fines. But the state government is yet to launch the review, and many lawyers have reported receiving generic, prewritten responses from the Traffic Camera Office, with no indication the case has been properly considered.

“These were highly complicated, rapidly changing directions, and working out if someone was in breach is difficult for a solicitor, so it’s concerning that this was conducted by the Traffic Camera Office,” Shenfield says.

The Victorian government has confirmed it will continue to enforce the debts, but did not respond to questions about the independent review mechanism.

“Fines have played a critical role in sending a clear message that anyone who blatantly and deliberately breaches the chief health officer directives will face a penalty,” a government spokesperson said. “Fines do not expire – and all fine debt will continue to be collected and enforced.”

Of all the fines issued for breaching the public health orders in Victoria, only 2000 have been withdrawn by the police – about 5 per cent.

Selvanera says the current review system resembles a “rubber-stamping exercise”.

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten is pushing the state government to waive all Covid-19 fines issued to youths and to set up a proper review mechanism.

“This gives us a great opportunity to rethink how we fine people and rethink the proportionality of those fines and the ability for someone to pay them,” Patten tells The Saturday Paper.

“My ability to pay a $500 fine is very different to someone who is on a single-parent pension, and I believe we should now be taking that into account. This is a health pandemic and making criminals out of people during a health pandemic is not the answer.”

Patten says she was “inundated” with calls from people confused by the public health orders during last year’s lockdown. “During that time health orders were changing almost on a daily basis,” she says. “To be fining people for not understanding the directions is not an effective way to deal with compliance in a pandemic.”

The Covid-19 fines are indicative of broader issues with Victoria’s fines and criminal justice system, Shenfield says, and show the impact of taking a punitive approach to public health issues.

“We want to see a solution for this,” she says, “that doesn’t involve the most marginalised people being hit with the heaviest burden.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Fines with a chance of powers".

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Denham Sadler is a freelance writer living in the Kulin nations.