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 during the lockdowns in 2020, police adopted an unnecessarily punitive approach, fining people for activities that are not deliberate, blatant and obvious breaches. Activities for which people were fined included sitting on a park bench after taking a walk, or taking a photo on the way to the supermarket. Police also refused to give people an adequate opportunity to explain their individual circumstances, particularly those for whom English is not their first language. Despite assurances from the Chief Commissioner of Police that 'common-sense' would be used when reviewing fines, the review process for people unfairly fined has been found to be inadequate. 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 communuity 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 need a fairer system, those least able to afford to pay for fines have been more targeted by enforcement measures. Disturbingly, people living in low socio-economic postcodes have been twice as likely to receive a fine than those living in more privileged suburbs. Communities that are heavily policed have also been disproportionately fined. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people received five times the fines than non-Aboriginal Victorians.

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 fine system fairer for everyone.