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Emily* was 24 and had been couch-surfing for about five years when the pandemic hit Melbourne last year.
While temporarily staying with a family member during lockdown, the Aboriginal woman was at the supermarket when a police officer asked for her identification. Her ID had an old address, which put her outside her five-kilometre zone – prohibited for Melburnians at the time.
Police issued 45,000 fines during the pandemic, the bulk of which remain unpaid.Credit:Justin McManus
She was fined $1652 on the spot. It was one of almost 45,000 fines issued to Victorians during Melbourne’s six lockdowns.
For Emily, the next few months became increasingly stressful. She could not afford to pay, and was referred by a support worker to a community legal centre. It took two separate applications, a court listing and three support letters to ultimately have her fine withdrawn.
Her lawyer, who requested anonymity to protect her client’s identity, said the lengthy and protracted process was distressing for Emily, who had also been experiencing domestic violence.
“Her story shows how difficult it is to exit the fines system when you are experiencing homelessness and disadvantage.”
Data released to The Age obtained under Freedom of Information now reveals the full scale and distribution of coronavirus infringements throughout Melbourne’s six lockdowns. It shows a barrage of fines, the bulk in areas where people were least able to afford them.
The Department of Justice and Community Safety data shows that from March last year to September 15 this year, 44,681 fines were handed out by police across Victoria, equating to tens of millions of dollars in potential revenue. But only 8 per cent (3673 fines) have been fully paid, while another 3366 recipients are on payment plans. About 12 per cent (5585 fines) have been withdrawn, cancelled or written off.
The bulk – 31,379 fines or 70 per cent – remain live and unpaid.
Analysis by the Torrens University’s Public Health Information Development Unit reveals a strong correlation between the Greater Melbourne areas which had a higher rate of fines and areas with greater socio-economic disadvantage.
Local government areas such as Brimbank, Greater Dandenong and Hume, which were among the most heavily fined local government areas in Melbourne, also have some of the lowest scores when it comes to the “socio-economic index for areas”, or SEIFA — a measurement of relative disadvantage calculated by looking at things such as unemployment, income and education levels. The higher rates of fines also correlated closely with areas with higher COVID-19 case rates and a higher crime rate.
The LGAs in Melbourne with the lowest fine rates were in the city’s more affluent east and north-east: Nillumbik, Boroondara, Manningham, Knox, Maroondah and Whitehorse.
More than a third of fines – almost 16,000 – have been handed to young people under the age of 25.
Demographer Liz Allen, from the Australian National University, said the data showed a “social gradient in that people living in areas of higher socio-economic disadvantage and experiencing hard times were more likely to be issued COVID infringements”.
“It’s sadly no surprise to me that people living in more disadvantaged areas experienced a greater level of COVID policing,” she told The Age. “Society commonly views people experiencing disadvantage as more troublesome and problematic. The reality for many disadvantaged people is that income and housing are far more precarious than those lucky enough to live comfortably financially.”
Dr Allen said people living in disadvantaged areas were those keeping the economy running – sales assistants, health workers and transport operators — and would be among the people living in areas with higher COVID-19 infringements.
“Social inequalities collide making people experiencing disadvantage more at risk of COVID and COVID-related policing. This comes down to vulnerabilities and the sad reality that Australian society doesn’t care enough about people doing it tough,” Dr Allen said.
Demographer Glenn Capuano, from research firm Informed Decisions, said a few local government areas had bucked the trend.
“City of Melbourne and Port Phillip have got a much higher rates of fines than their SEIFA would suggest. That’s probably because they are places where people congregate in Melbourne,” he said.
“Certainly, more fines seem to go to those on lower incomes. The causation could be in terms of the English proficiency. We know that many, like Greater Dandenong, have higher rates of migrant population, potentially language difficulties.
“These are probably known places where you’ve language issues, cultural issues, that sort of thing. They are mostly culturally diverse areas.”
A ripple effect
Community lawyers working in poorer areas of Melbourne are concerned that the impact of COVID-19 fines will not end with the pandemic. Thousands of infringements have been handed to those who are struggling to pay, they say, potentially dragging many – particularly young people – into the criminal justice system.
“Every time that someone who is experiencing disadvantage, or has been made disadvantaged by a range of factors in their life, receives a fine … there’s a ripple effect,” says Ashleigh Newman, a lawyer with Springvale Monash Legal Service in the Greater Dandenong local government area.
Her service has seen many clients who have come to them because of COVID-19 infringements.
“It creates this sort of level of tension in people’s lives. If you have a fine hanging over your head, it’s incredibly stressful,” Ms Newman said. “It’s very, very hard for people who are already on the cusp or on the edge of our society.”
She had seen several examples of clients who had problems communicating with police, including those with language barriers and mental health issues. Young people had also come to her service asking for help, scared to tell their parents after receiving a fine because they knew the financial burden it would place on their families.
Tiffany Overall, a lawyer with Youthlaw, said fines debt could have serious health and social impacts, adding to the mental health “shadow pandemic”.
“For those on very high incomes a fine of $200 for failing to wear a face mask, or even the higher COVID-19 fines of several thousand dollars, may impose minimal burden, whereas the impact of the same fine for someone on JobSeeker or another social security payment is extremely harsh and crushing – not to mention a child under 18 years with no income.
“These financially disadvantaged community members risk serious consequences of being pulled into the criminal justice system, including being arrested, imprisoned, having their property seized and having their vehicle clamped.”
How will the fines be paid?
The state government and police have repeatedly vowed to pursue outstanding fines for breaches of coronavirus restrictions, while the Victorian Greens have called for fines to be reduced for people on low incomes or with disadvantage.
If passed, the state government’s controversial pandemic legislation would introduce the harshest fines for non-compliance in the country.
Even after proposed amendments reduced the maximum fines, a person who fails to comply with a health order knowing it could cause serious health risks to others, would face a maximum fine of $45,000, while businesses face up to $226,000. The government says these maximum penalties would be used “rarely”.
Contained in the bill is also a concessional infringement scheme under which people experiencing financial hardship could apply for a reduction. But a government spokeswoman said it would only apply to future fines that are issued under the proposed legislation, not existing fines.
The process for paying a coronavirus fine
Fines issued for breaches of the Chief Health Officer’s directions are reviewed by police. A fine recipient can also request a second review by Victoria Police.
If the fine proceeds, the person has 28 days to pay and if they do not, they receive a reminder and final notice. If they still do not pay, it is referred to Fines Victoria, a warrant is issued and it proceeds to the Sherriff’s Office.
People can also elect to have their matter heard by a court, in which case the informant – the officer who issued the fine – prepares a brief of evidence and, if approved, a summons is issued and the matter will proceed to court.
Community lawyers have welcomed the idea but say it needs to be retrospective.
“This measure, to introduce a reduced penalty amount for people in financial hardship at a rate which is fair, proportional and of equal impact, would substantially increase the fairness, and effectiveness of the fines system,” said Ms Overall, who also represents Victoria’s COVID-19 Fines Community Lawyer Working Group.
Ms Newman agreed. If fines were not going to be waived then a retrospective scheme could go some way in tackling the difficulty people faced in paying, she said.
“I think a lot of people just physically cannot pay the fine if they are wanting to maintain paying rent and pay for food and for their kids,” she said.
“It is very stressful for people. It’s a very complicated system.”
Victoria Police issue pandemic-related fines at a refugee rights protest in Preston earlier this year.
A spokeswoman from Victoria Legal Aid also said the organisation supported the concessional fines scheme being retrospective, and Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie said that people on low incomes had borne the brunt of the pandemic, both in terms of the health risk as well as the economic impact.
“It can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for a person experiencing poverty to afford a fine for a public health order without incurring more debt or sacrificing essential items they need to survive,” she said. “This is because fines are not proportionate to an individual’s income.”
Are police the answer?
Before the pandemic, there were only a small number of criminal offences that Victoria Police could deal with by issuing an infringement. Coronavirus changed this, giving police powers to issue infringements under a number of new health offences.
As vaccination levels increase and the likelihood of long lockdowns decrease, questions are being asked about the role police should play during a pandemic, particularly following reports of unrest within the force about enforcing certain restrictions such as the playground ban.
Louise Boon-Kuo, a legal scholar at the University of Sydney, said fines were just one way police enforced public health measures. Their research found 45 per cent of people stopped for COVID-19-related reasons in NSW were also searched.
“We were really struck by that,” she said. “It suggests that those communities with increased COVID-19 policing face intensified policing more generally which can amplify inequalities through fines or charges for other matters.”
Dr Boon-Kuo said that fines had particular implications for disadvantaged communities. For example, if fines go unpaid it can mean a person’s driver’s licence is suspended, meaning they can’t drive to work, and may lead to further criminal consequences.
“Police ought not to be the default model for achieving health objectives. Rather community-based collaborations are needed to identify barriers and to develop non-coercive approaches that encourage compliance,” she said.
“This is the right time to discuss these questions because we may need to prepare as a society for future pandemics.”
In a statement, Victoria Police said the pandemic had presented “many new challenges” for officers and it had been crucial that they engaged sensitively and respectfully with the community.
“While enforcing the Chief Health Officer directions, police encouraged compliance through education, prioritising warnings in the first instance and only issuing fines to those who blatantly breached the rules,” a spokeswoman said. “Police also considered a number of factors when determining whether to issue a warning or fine. Officers were encouraged to exercise discretion wherever possible.
“Police resources were deployed throughout all of Victoria and officers were routinely reminded to take a consistent approach when enforcing CHO directions.”
A Victorian government spokeswoman acknowledged that fines could have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable Victorians and said there were flexible options for those experiencing disadvantage or with special circumstances.
People suffering financial hardship, family violence, homelessness, mental disabilities or addiction were able to work off their fines by engaging in approved activities through the Work and Development Permit Scheme, she said.
“Fines Victoria continues to improve pathways through the infringement system for vulnerable Victorians,” she said.
“If you think a fine has been issued to you incorrectly or if you have an outstanding fine, contact Fines Victoria to discuss the best option to resolve it.”
*Not her real name.
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