Lawyers call on NSW premier to urgently review thousands of Covid fines

The Law Society of New South Wales has called on the premier, Dominic Perrottet, to “urgently” review thousands of Covid fines issued to the state’s most vulnerable, warning many were invalid, unfair, and have caused the disadvantaged to amass “debt they are unable to pay”.

Earlier this year, the Guardian revealed that small towns with high Indigenous populations and western Sydney suburbs home to the city’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged residents bore the brunt of Covid fines during the ramp-up in enforcement in the Delta outbreak.

Data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre showed that small towns including Walgett, Brewarrina and Wilcannia had the most fines per capita over the entire outbreak, with about six in 100 people living Walgett receiving fines. Eleven of the 15 communities where fines were most commonly issued also suffered the state’s highest level of social disadvantage.

Separate data also shows almost 3,000 children were hit with fines of up to $5,000 for minor Covid breaches in NSW between mid-2020 and December 2021.

Last month, the NSW Law Society president, Joanne van der Plaat, wrote to Perrottet, warning him the fines were having “a disproportionate and unjust impact on certain vulnerable groups of people, and in particular children and Aboriginal people”.

The constantly changing nature of the public health orders – data suggests 71 amendments to the orders were made between July 2021 and October 2021 – was also cited as a concern.

Van der Plaat said the frequent changes meant there was “a high likelihood that incorrectly issued fines are prevalent and indeed, inevitable”.

She said previous calls for the government to temporarily pause the recovery of fines had been ignored, and individual requests for fines to be waived were often being refused.

“The punitive and flow on effects of fines are well-known in relation to increasing individuals’ vulnerability to cycles of debt and disadvantage,” Van der Plaat wrote.

“PHO fines can lead to incarceration in NSW, either through conviction if a person elects to take the matter to court, or through driving while unlicensed. We understand from our members that almost half of those who were issued a PHO fine already have existing fines debt.”

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On Friday, a month after its letter to Perrottet, the Law Society made a public call for the NSW government to intervene.

In her public statement, Van der Plaat said the government must urgently review thousands of Covid fines issued to vulnerable residents.

“While Revenue NSW may be contacting vulnerable people and children to ‘provide support’ and possibly write off some fines, the Law Society considers all fines issued to children ought to be converted to formal cautions,” she said.

“The only option available for challenging a fine after refusal by Revenue NSW is to go to court. A loss there risks a conviction, an $11,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment. The consequences of a conviction can be life altering.”

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