Lawyers push to waive COVID fines for children as young as 13

The New South Wales government is resisting growing calls to scrap tens of thousands of COVID fines, which lawyers say were unfairly imposed, including on a teenager with developmental disabilities.

Whether the NSW government and police have been tough in their response to the pandemic will be debated in a test case before the NSW Supreme Court.

The Redfern Legal Center hopes its legal challenge will overturn 45,000 fines, which it says did not properly describe the offense committed.

“The process was unfair, messy and the rule of law was not respected,” Samantha Lee of the center told 7:30 a.m.

The agency responsible for COVID sanctions, Revenue NSW, said that of the 62,035 fines issued since the start of 2020, more than half, or 38,372, remained unpaid in full.

While the majority of them are being paid under some form of reimbursement plan, many have gone unanswered.

A total of 3,840 children between the ages of 13 and 17 were fined between $40 and $5,000, which lawyers say should be overturned as a caution.

Revenue NSW said 17 fines imposed on children totaling $45,000 remain unsolved.

Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay said the fines disproportionately affected poorer communities.(ABC News)

“This is a form of unfair treatment of children,” Ms Lee said. “These children were fined $1,000, $3,000 and $5,000.

“A child who has a developmental disability was fined three $1,000 for leaving his home. I believe he should never have been fined.

“Under the fines laws, a person with an intellectual disability should not have been fined.”

Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay told 7.30am she wanted all fines to be suspended nationwide as the system disproportionately affected NSW’s poorest communities and Victoria.

“It’s actually a national issue, and what we really need to do is first, in terms of fines, suspend enforcement until they can be properly reviewed so that the public can trust that the fines system is legal and operates fairly,” she said. said.

“But secondly, we actually need to have a broader look at the pandemic response.”

Children volunteer to pay fines through government scheme

A woman wearing a coat stands on a footpath.
Bronwyn O’Brien, social worker at SydWest Multicultural Services.(ABC News: Jason Om)

Some people penalized in New South Wales have opted to pay the fines through a program known as the Work and Development Order (WDO).

It allows low-income people to pay the fine through unpaid work or activities such as a life skills course, counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, and a mentoring.

Around 140 children attended WDOs, including some at SydWest Multicultural Services in Blacktown, which was among the suburbs that faced tougher restrictions than the rest of Sydney.

Social worker Bronwyn O’Brien told 7.30am that NSW Police had been ruthless towards residents, particularly if they were multilingual.

She cited the case of a father and son who went out for groceries and tried to explain themselves to the police, but were ignored.

“Any opportunity for them to explain themselves was closed off and they were immediately fined $1,000 each,” Ms O’Brien said.

She said it took weeks for people in the WDO program to pay their fines.

“They were around $500, or $1,000 per fine. For the clients we work with, it could be their weekly or fortnightly salary, if they get Centrelink it’s even worse.”

“Some people have to spend months and months engaging in activities just to reduce the fine a bit.”

A young man wearing a cap and a hoodie.
Connor Jago was 17 when he was fined for not wearing a mask on a train.(ABC News: Jason Om)

Connor Jago was 17 when police gave him two COVID fines for not wearing a mask on a train, and a separate transportation fine, totaling $680.

“It was almost more than what I was making in two weeks,” he said at 7.30am.

The second $80 COVID fine was for wearing a mask under his nose after putting it on, Mr Jago said at 7:30 a.m.

He threatened to sue the government, arguing he was complying with police instructions before Revenue NSW removed one of the $500 COVID fines.

Fines commissioner says refund system is beneficial

A man wearing a suit and tie has his arms crossed.
New South Wales State Chief Revenue Commissioner Scott Johnston.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

In a rare interview with 7.30, the head of Revenue NSW defended the organization and welcomed any review of individual cases.

Chief State Revenue Commissioner Scott Johnston is said to be undecided whether it is appropriate for police to issue fines to children as young as 13, and said the WDO program had “powerful” results.

“Some of the criticisms or challenges to the way we have proceeded, regarding the imposition of unfair penalties on people and young people, do not really reflect the experience of the people who have received these fines,” he said. .

“I fully understand that a fine affects people differently. Some people cannot afford to pay this commitment and the real commitment of my organization, and [me]is having a conversation with people where they need help and support.”

Mr Johnston said the agency had solved the cases of 500 children under the age of 15 being fined $40 for not wearing a mask.

NSW Police declined to comment at 7.30am, while the Victorian Government told 7.30am that its penalty system protects citizens from the pandemic and that there are options available if people are struggling to pay fines.

Watch this story at 7:30 a.m. on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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