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As Victoria raises its Covid-19 fines to $5000, lawyers say the agency overseeing fines continues to take a hardline approach to debt collection, ignoring the devastating effects this punitive system can have on the vulnerable. By Denham Sadler.

Victoria’s punitive fines system

The fines had become so overwhelming, Graeme says, it wouldn’t have mattered if the next payment notice asked for his arm. He had no chance of paying it all back. The fines were all for parking, incurred during a period of intense financial and family stress. In the end, he owed more than $2000.

At the time, Graeme, a disability pensioner since a serious back injury in the late 1990s, was caring for his granddaughter, who has a disability, and his son, who has struggled with drug addiction. So he took out a loan, which he eventually defaulted on, unable to meet the high repayments.

Graeme says he was under so much pressure that he didn’t even consider the extra debt he would have to pay back because of the loan. He describes this period of his life as terrible. “It just kept getting worse,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

As the debt accumulated, Graeme was admitted to a mental health unit in a Victorian hospital. He largely brushes over this time, the two weeks he spent “locked up”, as he calls it, which stretched out until he met Emily Scott, a lawyer from the WEstjustice community legal centre, who was embedded at the hospital as part of a fines initiative.

With Scott’s help, he was able to get the fines waived. “That took a big load off my shoulders,” Graeme says. “You don’t feel like you’re trapped anymore.” Without the debt looming over him, Graeme says that his anger has receded. “We’re starting to get back on our feet,” he says.

Scott says Graeme’s experience in Victoria’s fines system – one that is “inappropriate and punitive” towards people experiencing disadvantage – is routine.

“Working on the project really revealed the extent [to which] our system is not sufficiently supporting people with mental health issues, or those experiencing other forms of hardship in the community,” she says. “Continuing to push fines enforcement upon the most marginalised people just further entrenches the systemic cycle of disadvantage.”

In Victoria, fines continue to escalate until they are paid. This can eventually result in an individual being sent to jail, with a sentence based on how much is owed, to a maximum of 24 months.

“The overwhelming majority of our clients are on Centrelink,” says Scott. “The financial pressure of escalating fines can place people under immense stress and, for clients with mental illness, can be seriously exacerbating and cause people to reach breaking point.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when some local councils have stopped issuing parking fines, many people with existing fines have reported receiving scores of text messages reminding them to pay, without advising of any options.

There have also been nearly 20,000 fines handed out by Victoria Police for breaches of the Covid-19 restrictions in recent months. By comparison, New South Wales Police Force has issued 1440 fines since March 17. Statistics from the first two months of enforcement in Victoria showed that 10 per cent of fines were handed out in the state’s three most disadvantaged local government areas.

Victoria’s Covid-19 fines have been the highest in the nation. Last week, the Andrews government announced that Covid-19 fines for breaching restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings would be increased again, to nearly $5000.

 

Last year, the Victorian government launched a review into Fines Victoria. While the report was delivered in April, the government is yet to respond or release it publicly.

The review was triggered in part by a series of IT issues that plagued Fines Victoria for years. Despite the fact these issues often result in people not receiving an initial infringement notice, or the reminder notices, the Victorian government has said no fine will be waived because of them.

The Fines Reform Advisory Board, formed to guide the review, is looking into the previous reforms made to the fines system in 2018, which included a number of “social justice” initiatives. These were geared towards supporting disadvantaged people to navigate the fines system and avoid a punitive result, and included new schemes for victims of domestic violence as well as options to work a fine off through treatment or volunteering.

The reforms were welcomed by the community sector at the time, but the optimism soon fell away. WEstjustice lawyer Shifrah Blustein says that, two years on, many of these reforms have been an “abject failure”. Some have even made things worse.

Through Fines Victoria, individuals can make a special circumstances application if their fine is a result of mental or intellectual disability, or serious addiction, or if it relates to homelessness. But a report from a treating specialist or caseworker is needed as evidence for this application.

Previously, Blustein explains, Fines Victoria required someone to prove that their special circumstance “might have” contributed to receiving the fine in question. Under the new rules, it must “likely have” contributed, making it more difficult to obtain the confirming report from a specialist.

“That is a much higher threshold, and most practitioners are not able to talk about the causal connection with that level of certainty,” says Blustein. “Lots of people are locked out of the system because they can’t get the appropriate evidence.”

A similar threshold has also been raised for the new Family Violence Scheme, which allows people who have experienced family or domestic violence to apply for a fine to be cancelled.

Blustein says that while the legislation states the family violence exemption requires proof the abuse “substantially contributed” to an individual receiving a fine, this is being interpreted in an “overly strict” way by Fines Victoria, which is looking for a causal link.

“We’ve had quite a few clients with PTSD developed as a result of family violence, and Fines Victoria says that’s not a close enough nexus to the family violence. They say that if the fines are caused by the PTSD symptoms then the family violence hasn’t substantially contributed to that,” Blustein says. “That’s wrong – the family violence is what has given rise to PTSD. Issues like that have made the scheme not as accessible as it should be.”

Similarly, Blustein says that the Work and Development Permit scheme, another promising initiative from the 2018 reforms, is yet to live up to its potential. The scheme allows people with special circumstances to clear their fines through approved activities or treatments. But it has had a very low uptake, and, along with a lack of transparency over what the eligible activities are, is yet to have any real impact.

Bluestein says that the failure of the scheme so far mostly comes down to slow uptake from sponsor agencies. As well as this, there is no publicly available list of these agencies, making it difficult for people to access the scheme. “Even if you’ve got a fine and you hear about it, you can’t go to a website and see the list of organisations you can approach for it,” she says.

According to the Federation of Community Legal Centres, thousands of people are being excluded from the Work and Development Permit scheme because of these factors.

There is hope the fines inquiry will recommend changes to these reforms, along with a more significant modification of the current system. “We see this as a rare opportunity for wholesale change of the system,” Blustein says. “The statutory reviews are just piecemeal reform, but this is an opportunity to comment on the operation of the whole fines system.”

A spokesperson for the Victorian government confirmed the final report has been delivered after the four-month inquiry.

“Fines reform has delivered improvements in key areas,” the spokesperson said, “including fine payment rates and support for vulnerable Victorians through social justice initiatives.”

One of the new policies the community sector hopes the report will recommend is a concession fines scheme, which would adjust the size of a fine if someone is on welfare or a low income. Such a system was introduced in NSW in June, where those on Commonwealth payments can apply to have their traffic, speeding or parking fine cut in half due to financial hardship.

“We desperately need something like that in Victoria,” Blustein says.

“Ultimately, it’s not in the public interest at all to criminalise people with mental illness, on Newstart, who can’t pay their fines,” says Emily Scott. “This is illustrative of a punitive approach to these problems, when what’s so overwhelmingly needed is more support.”

Scott says the government needs to understand the reality of the current system and how it is impacting people most subject to systemic disadvantage.

“I just wish they could all work a couple of days in a community legal centre and see how they’re impacting people,” she says. “Then they would understand.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "A fines mess".

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Denham Sadler is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.