More than 3800 children in New South Wales have been fined by police for breaking Covid-19 rules as hundreds pay off fines through unpaid community work.
Minors aged 10-17 have been fined for either failing to comply with a direction or not wearing a face mask.
Around one in five kids are ‘paying off’ – or have paid off – infringements through work and development orders (WDOs).
Legal advocacy organisations have slammed the idea of slapping children with expensive fines for flouting restrictions and have called for cautions instead.
More than 3800 children in New South Wales have been fined for flouting Covid rules during the pandemic (stock image)
There have been 3840 fines issued to children aged 10 to 17 across the state during the pandemic.
Half of the fines issued to kids were for failing to comply with a direction under the public health act, according to data released by Redfern Legal Centre. That infringement carries a penalty of $5000.
The other half were fined for not wearing or carrying a face mask.
Work and development orders (WDOs) have been set up to allow people to ‘work off’ fines.
WDOs, which are headed by Revenue NSW, involve unpaid work, counselling, courses or treatment programs.
The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that 794 or around one in five children have paid off, or are currently paying off, fines through WDOs.
But legal advocacy groups have expressed their outrage over children being fined and believe those living in low-socioeconomic areas have been unfairly targeted.
Redfern Legal Centre senior police accountability solicitor, Samantha Lee, said WDOs are ‘unsuitable’ for children.
‘Children should be going to school not working off fines debt,’ she said.
‘Close to 4000 fines were issued to children by NSW Police during the pandemic. This is a damning statistic, especially when you consider that the number of warnings issued to children under the Young Offenders Act was around half the number of actual fines given out.’
Organisations such as Community Legal Centres NSW wrote to the premier about withdrawing fines for children and replacing them with cautions instead – a view that was shared by Redfern Legal Centre.
But a spokesperson for Community Legal Centres NSW told Daily Mail Australia that their proposal was rejected last month.
‘On 29 June 2022, the Deputy Secretary of Revenue NSW and Chief Commissioner of State Revenue informed us that the NSW Government would not support our proposal,’ they said.
‘We question what child, and in particular children who are from areas of socio-economic disadvantage, would have the capacity to understand the fines enforcement system, or the financial means to pay off a fine.’
‘Is the Chief Commissioner suggesting a ten year old get a job? 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.’
Jane Sanders, principal solicitor at the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre, believes infringements are being issued to children too readily.
‘I think it is encouraging these agencies to just write out fines without really thinking about the consequences or being accountable,’ she said.
‘It seems that issuing a penalty notice is a first resort. Why are kids not entitled to a caution for these kinds of offences?’
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Revenue NSW for comment.
Children aged 10-17 have either been fined by police for failing to comply with a direction under the public health act or not wearing a mask (pictured, masked police officers outside Bankstown Police Station)
It comes as thousands of Covid-19 fines worth millions of dollars could be ruled invalid if two Sydneysiders win a landmark test case in the New South Wales Supreme Court.
The man and woman claim their infringement notices were issued in such vague terms they could not be legally enforced and would be difficult, if not impossible, to challenge in front of a magistrate.
If they win their actions it could set a precedent that sees many of more than 45,000 such unpaid fines for Covid-related public health order breaches in NSW withdrawn.
A class action in NSW could now go ahead and similar law suits would likely be pursued in other states. There were 19,000 fines handed out in Victoria, and tens of thousands across the rest of Australia.
Thousands of Covid-19 fines worth millions of dollars could be ruled invalid if a test case in the NSW Supreme Court is successful. Young men and women are pictured innocently enjoying the sun at Bondi Beach in September last year at the height of Sydney’s lockdowns
A man and woman claim their Covid infringement notices were issued in such vague terms they could not be enforced and would be difficult, if not impossible, to legally challenge. Bondi residents are pictured out exercising in September last year surrounded by police officers
Redfern Legal Centre is running the case against the NSW Police Commissioner and Commissioner of Fines Administration on behalf of Brenden Beame and Teal Els.
A third plaintiff, 30-year-old Rohan Pank, has already had his $1,000 fine withdrawn late last week after the administrative law court action was launched.
The matter was mentioned briefly in court on Tuesday when it was heard if the claims succeeded fines worth millions of dollars issued across NSW could be invalidated.
Between March 2020 and this month there were 62,029 Covid fines issued totalling $56,499,080. As of May, 47,560 fines totalling $42,269,700 remain unpaid.
Most of the penalty notices were issued at the height of Sydney’s lockdown in August and September and Revenue NSW is now seeking they be enforced.
Thousands of those people who were fined requested a revue and Revenue NSW has withdrawn 12.6 per cent of penalty notices.
A legal challenge to Covid fines could set a precedent that sees many of more than 45,000 such unpaid fines for public health order breaches in New South Wales withdrawn
The three plaintiffs represented by Redfern Legal Centre sought to have their fines and the subsequent enforcement orders ruled invalid and that any money that had been paid be refunded.
Mr Pank was fined for sitting on a hill in a park with his girlfriend in August 2021 when they were approached by four police officers while Sydney was in lockdown.
He was within 1km of his home and was told by police he and his girlfriend had breached a public health order by not actively exercising.
At the time, interpretations of public health orders were constantly changing and there was confusion about the meaning of terms such as ‘exercise or recreation’.
NSW Health declared ‘sitting for relaxation’ was considered to be outdoor recreation in the days after Mr Pank was fined.
He had sought two reviews of his infringement notice but Revenue NSW rejected each one, according to Redfern Legal Centre.
Between March 2020 and July 2022 there were 62,029 Covid fines issued totalling $56,499,080. As of May, 47,560 fines totalling $42,269,700 remain unpaid
The agency first stated Mr Pank had been told by police he should not be away from his home without a reasonable excuse.
Next, it claimed Mr Pank breached a public health order by crossing into the City of Sydney from the Inner West local government area where he resided.
When Mr Pank had been sitting in the park, outdoor recreation was permitted within 10km of a person’s home with no requirement they stay within their council boundary.
Samantha Lee, senior police accountability solicitor at the Redfern Legal Centre, said public health orders changed 71 times between July and September last year – sometimes twice in one day.
‘Everyone was just confused,’ she said. ‘What we have seen was this pattern of people being fined not according to law.
‘Public health orders were not being applied correctly by police. What we found was that even Revenue NSW was applying the law wrongly or not applying the law at all.’
Most of the penalty notices were issued at the height of Sydney’s lockdown in August and September and Revenue NSW is now seeking they be enforced. Beachgoers not swimming or not exercising were at one time required to wear a mask
Ms Lee said fines were generally issued to people engaged in recreation or exercise and for not observing distance rules but some were for pursuing activities as basic as grocery shopping.
‘In most cases people weren’t flouting the laws,’ she said. ‘The laws were being applied wrongly.’
‘The crux of our mater is that these Covid fines are not fines because they don’t satisfy the legislative requirement under the Fines Act.’
There were hundreds of clauses under ten public health orders but which of them had allegedly been breached was not specified in the fines. Mr Pank’s infringement came under Section 7, 8 and 9 of the orders.
Ms Lee said Covid fines were applied with a strict liability, such as with parking in a no stopping zone, where no intent had to be proved.
‘These fines required a lot of discretion by police to decide if someone had an excuse or not,’ she said.
Thousands of those people who were fined requested a revue and Revenue NSW has withdrawn 12.6 per cent of penalty notices. Stock image
‘We found that the review system and the police system was not providing justice to people on the ground and in fact was getting it all wrong.’
Ms Lee said the infringement notices did not actually stipulate what someone had allegedly done wrong.
‘It doesn’t tell you what crime you’ve committed,’ she said. ‘For example, with the gathering fine it just says that you’ve gathered.
‘It doesn’t say what you’ve breached, which then made it impossible to try and appeal it because you don’t know what the police need to prove and then take it to court.
‘We are of the view that’s probably why there were so many issued – they were so easy to issue because they were so vague.’
There were hundreds of clauses under ten public health orders but which of them had allegedly been breached was not specified in the fines. A couple is pictured in Rushcutters Bay lawfully gathering in a park
A disproportionate number of fines was issued to residents in low socioeconomic areas during the height of lockdowns.
‘The problem with fines is they’re not means tested and therefore punish people more for the same offence if they’re on a lower income,’ Ms Lee said.
Between July 2020 and October last year there were 1,536 fines totalling $1,366,380 issued to Mount Druitt residents and 1,291 worth $1,157,680 at Liverpool compared with 25 ($24,000) at Waverley.
Ms Lee said there were more police patrolling the areas where the most fines were issued and more restrictive orders in place in some of those suburbs.
‘But I think the third issue is that those people were out and about more because they had to get to work,’ she said. ‘A lot of them couldn’t work from home.’
A letter Revenue NSW sent to Mr Pank on July 15 did not properly explain why his fine had been withdrawn after it had been reviewed for the third time.
Between July 2020 and October last year there were 1,536 fines totalling $1,366,380 issued to Mount Druitt residents and 1,291 worth $1,157,680 at Liverpool compared with 25 ($24,000) at Waverley. Stock image
‘We re-examined your request of Fine 4066740792 for ‘Fail to comply with noticed direction in relation to section 7/8/9 – COVID-19 – Individual’ on 07 August 2021,’ the agency wrote.
‘Outcome of our review: We re-examined the fine using our Review Guidelines and after further consideration, we have decided to cancel the fine.’
Ms Lee said she did not think it was a coincidence that Mr Pank’s fine was withdrawn after his court papers were filed.
‘I think Mr Pank’s fine should have been withdrawn on the first review and it should never have been issued. Police got it wrong and then Revenue got it wrong.’
Ms Lee is encouraging anyone who has been penalised for similar reasons to come forward to seek legal advice and a review of their fine.
The case will return to court on August 26 for directions and a hearing on November 29. A hearing on who pays Mr Pank’s costs will also be heard after it was withdrawn.