Exclusive: government rejected call by legal groups to replace Covid fines, issued to about 3,000 children, with cautions
The New South Wales government privately suggested children as young as 10 could be placed in an unpaid work program or on “extended payment plans” to help them pay off hefty fines for breaching Covid rules, prompting outrage from the state’s community legal centres.
Roughly 3,000 Covid fines have been issued to children aged 10-17 in NSW, most commonly for failing to comply with a direction under the public health act, and usually for amounts of $1,000.
Revenue NSW confirmed to the Guardian late Wednesday that work and development orders (WDOs) – which allow participants to reduce fines by engaging in unpaid work, counselling, courses or treatment programs – had been used for those under the age of 18 for Covid rule breaches. It is unclear how many children had been placed on WDOs due to Covid breaches or how old they were.
The state government had privately flagged its intention to use WDOs earlier this year, after an alliance of legal groups, including Community Legal Centres NSW, wrote to the premier, calling for Covid fines to be withdrawn for children aged 10-17.
The legal groups called for the children to be issued cautions instead and warned the fines were disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities. Children had little capacity to pay or understand the enforcements system, the groups warned.
“Our services have also received numerous reports of children in out-of-home care receiving Covid fines,” they wrote. “Many of these children were also experiencing complex, intersecting vulnerabilities, including intellectual disabilities and/or mental health conditions, trauma background, and interrupted schooling.”
The government’s response, seen by the Guardian, rejected the call to replace the fines with cautions.
The chief commissioner of state revenue told the legal groups that “a general withdrawal of PHO fines issued to children aged 10 to 17 years of age is not supported”.
The commissioner said Revenue NSW would instead seek to work more closely with vulnerable young people to help them pay off their fines, while also strengthening the review processes for those who are underage and conducting a review of outstanding debt to identify “debt that is uneconomical to pursue”.
He also suggested children could be put on extended payment plans or work orders to help them pay off the debt.
“Revenue NSW will work with the customer to determine the most appropriate method to resolve the fine, such as an extended payment plan or a Work and Development Order,” the commissioner wrote on 29 June.
Community Legal Centres NSW executive director Katrina Ironside questioned what child, particularly children from areas of socio-economic disadvantage, would have the financial means to pay off such a fine, or the capacity to understand the enforcement system.
“Is the chief commissioner suggesting a 10-year-old get a job?” Ironside said. “A child already living in poverty burdened with a debt they cannot pay further entrenches that poverty before they are even old enough to earn their own money.”
A spokesperson said Revenue NSW had made “significant progress” in resolving fines for younger customers, and said that, of the 2,922 public health order penalties issued to under 18-year-olds, only 17 were unresolved.
“All others have either been paid, cautioned, withdrawn, written off, are on [work and development orders] or on payment plans,” the spokesperson said.
Data released by the Redfern Legal Centre last year showed fines worth $2.1m have been issued to 2,844 children aged 10-17 since the middle of last year.
More than half the children received a fine of $1,000. Seventeen children were fined $5,000 and 39 were fined $3,000.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/embed/aus/2020/yacht-charter-v16/index.html?key=1HeSF9YAjbg2jxH1_D8WbyltYEU8RjAExwIzLCJw53TY&location=docsdata
The state government has so far resisted any call to stop its enforcement of Covid fines. For both adults and children, roughly 45,000 fines issued in 2021-22 are now overdue, according to NSW government data. A host of legal services dealing with public health order breach cases have warned the fines have in many cases been issued erroneously, are not being tested properly in internal review processes, or are being enforced unfairly.
On Wednesday, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW warned that Indigenous Australians were having their driving licences cancelled as part of the enforcement of Covid fines.
Managing solicitor for the ALS’s Fines Clinic, Lauren Stefanou, said the loss of licences had a significant impact on an already disadvantaged cohort.
“Many of these clients live in regional and remote areas where public transport is not available,” Stefanou said. “The stress of licence sanctions only adds to the financial stress caused by crushing fine debt.”
Additional data released by the Redfern Legal Centre showed that, for the 47,000 fines issued in July, August, and September last year, the local government areas with the largest volume of fines per capita were Brewarrina, Coonamble, Gilgandra, Moree Plains, Walgett, Bourke and Gunnedah. Those LGAs all have significant Indigenous populations.
Ironside said it was “extremely alarming, but not surprising” that police hit communities with high numbers of people facing disadvantage.
“First Nations communities and lower-socioeconomic communities really bore the brunt of Covid-19 policing and fines,” she said.
“The experience of community legal centres also suggests that marginalised and disadvantaged groups such as people experiencing homelessness and people with psychosocial disability were disproportionately issued fines during the pandemic.”
In a statement, Revenue NSW said it had proactively contacted as many people under 18 with a Covid fine as possible and was offering a range of support options to help vulnerable customers, including extended payment plans, which are based on an individual’s circumstances and capacity to pay the debt.
It also considered non-financial resolutions in some cases, a spokesperson said.
“While Revenue NSW is not supportive of withdrawing all PHO fines issued to children, it is evaluating the outstanding debt and utilising existing processes and practices to identify debt that is uneconomical to pursue,” the spokesperson said.
Work and development orders were optional, and were open to “any eligible person with an overdue fine, regardless of age”, the spokesperson said.
“All [work and development orders] must have an approved sponsor when making an application,” the spokesperson said. “Whether or not a particular activity under a WDO is suitable for a young person is determined on a case-by-case basis, guided by the sponsor.”