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The NSW government will withdraw more than 33,000 COVID-19 fines after a Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday.
- The fines cancelled are about half of the 62,128 COVID-related infringements issued
- Revenue NSW says that all sanctions on unpaid fines will now stop
- They also said the remaining 29,017 fines would still be required to be paid
Earlier on Tuesday, Justice Dina Yehia SC was set to hear arguments that two fines for between $1,000 and $3,000, did not meet the requirements of section 20 under the Fines Act.
Barrister Katherine Richardson SC said the plaintiffs had in effect been forced to take the “extraordinary step” of going to the Supreme Court after other unsuccessful attempts to have the fines reviewed.
“It’s only at the eleventh hour the Crown has finally accepted these were invalid,” she said.
Within a matter of hours the government moved to withdraw more than half the infringements issued under NSW’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The case centred on the technical basis the notices did not provide a sufficiently detailed description of the offence committed and were therefore invalid.
In a statement issued after the ruling, Revenue NSW confirmed it would withdraw 33,121 fines.
A total of 62,128 COVID-related infringements were issued in the state throughout the pandemic.
“Where fines are withdrawn, all sanctions, including drivers licence restrictions or garnishee order activity will be stopped,” the statement read.
“Where a fine has been withdrawn and a customer has made a payment — either in part or in full — Revenue NSW will make contact to arrange a refund or credit the payment towards other outstanding debts.”
The agency also noted it did “not mean the offences were not committed” and “the remaining 29,017 fines will still be required to be paid if not already resolved”.
Scott Johnston from Revenue NSW said his decision was made in the interest of being “consistent and equitable”, and refunding the close to $10 million that has already being paid, will start immediately.
“We’ll be working through a process to contact everyone who’s either made payments to discuss getting a refund as quickly as possible,” Mr Johnston said.
“Or to those that haven’t resolved those fines, there’ll be nothing further for them to do, but we’ll advise them as such.”
About one third of people have already settled their fines, with others making part-payments while about 8,000 fines are overdue, according to Mr Johnston.
“We’ve got everyone’s’ details who’s paid, we’ll have to write to everyone to get their details so we can return the money to the right bank account … we’ll also have a hotline.
“We’re ready to answer the calls that come, customer service is important to us and doing a good and fair job.”
Earlier, David Kell SC, representing the NSW Commissioner of Fines Administration, warned the court the two infringements did not meet the act’s requirements.
Mr Kell said the court should be “cautious” in throwing out the fines, as it would set a precedent in the area.
In a statement the Law Society of NSW welcomed the “common sense” decision but urged Revenue NSW to review the remaining COVID-19 related fines — especially any imposed on children.
“Many of the top fifteen per-capita locations where fines were issued during the Delta outbreak have high Aboriginal populations,” Law Society president Joanne van der Plaat said.
“These include the top three of Walgett, Brewarrina and Wilcannia. Eleven of these communities are counted among communities suffering the state’s highest level of social disadvantage.”
Brendan Beame and Teal Els’s court challenge, brought by Redfern Legal Centre, was the catalyst for the mass cancellation.
Katherine Richardson SC, said more than 160 people had received an identical $3,000 fine as Ms Els, and more than 500 had fines with similar wording.
Ms Richardson said Ms Els had no idea what she was being fined for when she was approached by police while sitting in a park after exercising with her sister.
“How can she tell, for example, having no idea what offence she said to have committed with a penalty amount of $3,000, which is obviously a very significant amount of money to be imposed by notice procedure,” Ms Richardson told the court.
“Our submission states they are entitled to a refund. They have been charged money invalidly and we are pressing for a full range of relief to be sought.”
In July, Rohan Pank had his fine dismissed for sitting on a park bench in August 2021, during Sydney’s lockdown.
Redfern Legal Centre represented the three plaintiffs who said they received little information and the fines lacked details about any public health orders breached.
The total amount of fines issued during the lockdown amounted to more than $33 million according to Revenue NSW.
Sydney faced a 107-day lockdown in mid to late 2021 as the Delta and Omicron waves spread through the city.
There were also 12 local government areas in Western Sydney that faced harsher lockdown restrictions including a nightly curfew.
Outside court, Redfern Legal Centre’s acting principal solicitor Samantha Lee said it was an “extraordinary” day for NSW.
“The state has conceded that the COVID fines brought to the court today are invalid,” she said.
“We are going to ask the commissioner of fines to set up a mechanism to give the money back. They have no other means than to withdraw those fines. This case has set a precedent.”
Ms Lee said the decisions today has the potential to invalidate all COVID-19 fines that were issued during the 2020 and 2021 lockdown.
Justice Yehia is expected to make a formal judgement in early 2023.