NSW unlikely to withdraw further Covid fines despite court ruling many were unlawful | Australia news
The New South Wales government is signalling it will not withdraw any additional Covid fines despite a supreme court decision finding a huge volume of pandemic-related infringements were unlawful.
The state government was last year forced to withdraw more than 33,000 Covid fines after a NSW supreme court test case, lodged by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), raised serious concerns about their lawfulness.
In an April judgment, the court later confirmed Covid fines had been issued unlawfully because they were too vague in nature and had not properly specified the offence that was alleged to have been committed.
The ruling prompted calls for the remaining 29,017 fines to be withdrawn and for NSW police to cease pursuing disputed fines through the court.
But both Revenue NSW and NSW police have remained tight-lipped about their plans for the remaining fines, despite repeated questions from Guardian Australia in recent weeks.
Two months on, NSW police says it is still considering the consequences of the decision, while Revenue NSW has repeatedly referred questions about its own position on the remaining fines to police.
But the government’s position has been revealed in the way it is responding to fine recipients who have disputed their infringements because of the court’s ruling.
The Commissioner of Fines Administration is telling individual fine recipients that the government has no plans to withdraw any more fines as a result of the decision.
It acknowledges some fines had “lacked specificity” and were unlawful, but says that the remainder did not suffer from the same problem.
“As at the date of this response, a decision has been made that the remaining offence descriptions, including [your offence type] are sufficiently specific and The Commissioner is not withdrawing any further fines on this basis,” the commissioner’s office told one recipient. “Should a decision be made to withdraw further fines, you will be notified if you are impacted.”
The position has prompted criticism from Redfern Legal Centre.
The centre’s senior solicitor Samantha Lee said its position was that all Covid fines, including the 29,017 that remain, fail to adequately specify the required detail of the alleged offence, making them unlawful.
“It is our position that all Covid fines fail this legal requirement and therefore all should be withdrawn,” she said.
“There has been no indication from Revenue NSW the organisation has absorbed and acted on the significance of the supreme court decision.”
“The judgment is not just about the need to withdraw invalid fines, but it has highlighted that the current penalty notice system in New South Wales is not fit for purpose and has huge legal flaws because fines (not just Covid fines) fail to meet the legal requirements under the Fines Act.”
The development comes as the RLC and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) lodged a formal complaint to the police watchdog about their enforcement of Covid fines.
The two community legal services have asked the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) to investigate the way police enforced Covid fines, which they described as “heavy-handed”.
The LECC complaint followed an internal video published by the Sydney Morning Herald showing the former NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, directing officers to take a “strong approach to enforcement” and that they “start to issue tickets over using discretion”.
In a statement, the Redfern Legal Centre chief executive, Camilla Pandolfini, said the significant volume of fines issued by police suggested they were not using their discretion to issue fines and were instead issuing them by default.
“Some of our clients were as young as 12 years old when NSW police officers issued fines to them,” Pandolfini said. “Parents called us, in tears, unable to pay the fines issued to their young children.
“People experiencing homelessness, with significant mental health conditions, or returning home from their shift as health workers were fined by NSW police.”