Opinion piece by Nicola Norris, Board member of Success Works
It is a well-known fact that the government raises millions of dollars of revenue from parking, speeding, and other fines. What is not well-known, is that an unpaid fine can lead to a person getting a criminal record.
Anyone can find themselves in a bad situation as a result of not paying fines. As Sarah* a successful employee of a well-known Australian bank told me, “I was young and the parking fines got out of control. I didn’t realise that the overdue penalties were going to mount up the longer I left it. By the time I confessed to my dad about the fines, the bill was huge. He paid them off for me so I avoided any further recovery action taken against me. I was so lucky I had someone to rescue me from that situation and that Dad could afford to pay off my fines.”
Unfortunately, not all women with unpaid fines have the good fortune of knowing someone who can assist them in paying them off, in fact, 34% of Success Works candidates have disclosed that they have outstanding fines. A delay in payment of a fine can mean additional penalties i.e. the debt grows bigger. The NSW State Debt Recovery Office (SDRO) also has the power to suspend a driver’s licence, cancel a vehicle registration, seize property to pay the fine, or take a person to court and order them to undertake community service to pay off the fine.
Fortunately, imprisonment as a primary enforcement action for a fine default has been abolished in NSW. Section 125(1) of the Fines Act 1996 (NSW) states: “A person is not liable to be committed to a correctional centre for a failure to pay a fine or other penalty by the due date.”
On 19 June 2020, the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Act 2020 (WA) was assented to. Under this legislation, imprisonment for non-payment of fines is restricted so it can only be ordered by a Magistrate, and even then, only as a sanction of last resort. This change was a direct result of the Pathways to Justice report, which highlighted the death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who died from an infected rib fracture – an injury sustained in a family violence incident. Ms Dhu was imprisoned in WA after being arrested on a warrant of commitment for $3,622 of unpaid fines in August 2014.
However, there are cases where women in our service started with an unpaid fine and this indirectly led to them serving prison time. The unpaid fine led to a community order or a suspended driver’s licence. Subsequent failure to comply with the community correction order or service order was an indirect route to prison for those who failed to pay their fines. Additionally, some women were caught driving with a suspended driver’s licence, (the suspension being a result of an unpaid fine). Some of them have incurred a fine due to insufficient funds on their Opal card and they then use public transport to attend an essential appointment. This is an offense and many are sanctioned or break conditions of parole and can even be sent back to prison for a period of time.
Whilst poverty is a key factor, there are also stories of women in our service with unpaid fines, who had been impacted by domestic violence and financial abuse, in fact 44% of Success Works candidates have reported experiencing domestic violence. In some cases, their partners controlled the finances and they were too afraid to tell their partners that they had incurred a fine, or took the blame for an abusive partner’s fine. These women may have survived domestic abuse, but now have a criminal record impacting their chances of long-term recovery.
Whilst amendments to the Fine Act 1996 have made jail time in NSW less likely for someone with an unpaid fine, women experiencing poverty and/or domestic violence are still vulnerable to being impacted by the justice system for being unable to pay a fine and this then impacts their chances of gaining employment. Lack of access to employment due to a criminal record has a profound impact on families, leading to a cycle of intergenerational disadvantage and trauma.
Some not-for-profits are now offering to pay the fines of people in this dire situation of being unable to pay a fine. Beneficiaries of such programs are usually requested to undergo financial counselling programs in exchange for having their fine paid.
It’s time we examined the complex reasons why someone cannot pay a fine, support those impacted by domestic violence, and ensure that an unpaid fine should never lead directly or indirectly to someone getting a criminal record.
*name changed for privacy
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