Published on Wednesday 16, September 2020

Fines advocacy during COVID-19

COVID-19 has exposed and further compounded existing issues within the fines system, which we have long been advocating to change. As a result of increasing financial hardship and social distancing restrictions, people experiencing disadvantage are at greater risk of being issued new fines or defaulting on existing ones.

In partnership with other community legal centres and social services organisations, early on in the pandemic we communicated with the government about necessary reforms and temporary system changes. In particular, we advocated for temporary stays on certain sanctions and enforcement measures during COVID-19 as well as operational changes to improve the infringement system.

While changes to the internal policies of Fines Victoria during COVID-19 have reflected some of our collective recommendations, including a temporary suspension of enforcement measures and the exercise of greater discretion with regards to special circumstances applications, more change is needed.

A critical spotlight now also needs to be shone on the imposition of COVID-19 specific fines for purported breaches of the Chief Health Officer directions, and the process of review. Our client experiences suggest that police are adopting an unnecessarily punitive approach, fining people for activities that are not deliberate, blatant and obvous breaches, such as sitting on a park bench after taking a walk, or taking a photo whilst on the way to the supermarket, and refusing to give poeple an adequate opportunity to explain their individual circumstances, particularly those for whom English is not their first language. To date, despite assurances from the Chief Commissioner of Police that 'common-sense' would be used when reviewing fines, we are yet to see any fines withdrawn. You can read more about our COVID-19 fines advocacy in our media engagement here.

As the social and economic consequences of the pandemic become clearer in terms of scale and timeframe, the need for reform of the fines system and practices becomes increasingly urgent. To those who are able to pay, a fine can be seen as an annoyance. However, to the many people in our community grappling with job loss and social isolation, fines can very quickly increase economic hardship, heighten anxiety and reduce capacity to respond to our public health crisis.

We will continue to ensure the voices of our clients and community are heard while we advocate for sensible and practical changes to make our fines system fairer for everyone.