New South Wales residents wrongly penalised for Covid breaches say it is “crazy” it took a protracted and costly court case to force the state government to back down and withdraw 33,000 invalid fines.
The NSW government was forced on Tuesday to cancel 33,000 fines, worth an estimated $30m, for breaches of Covid-era public health orders after conceding they were too vague.
Revenue NSW said that was about half the total number of fines issued by police for breaches of health orders during pandemic restrictions in 2020 and 2021. There are now calls for the remaining approximately 29,000 Covid fines to also be withdrawn.
The government’s hand was forced by a test case, run by Redfern Legal Centre, which argued that police did not provide sufficient detail about the offence, a breach of the Fines Act.
The case initially involved three wrongly fined residents, including Rohan Pank, who was fined in August 2021 for sitting in a park 1km from his home while taking a short break from exercising.
Not long after the fine, the government classified what he’d been doing – sitting for relaxation – as an acceptable form of outdoor recreation. Pank challenged the fine twice and received wildly different reasons as to why he had committed an offence. Pank then took his case to the NSW supreme court.
Almost immediately after filing a court challenge, Pank’s fine was withdrawn, something he described at the time as “ridiculous”.
On Tuesday evening Pank said he was frustrated it had taken this long for the government to concede its error in the two remaining cases.
“It’s very annoying that they came to that conclusion at the last minute and it’s taken a supreme court case to get all three of our cases dismissed, but it’s still fantastic that they’ve gone and removed the 33,000 other fines, that’s the main result I was hoping for,” he said.
Another resident who was fined for riding a bike in a different council area, despite being within 5km of his home, said the government’s attitude to concerns about the enforcement of fines had been baffling.
The resident, who later had the fine withdrawn, said he could not believe it had taken a supreme court challenge to force the government to cancel other wrongly issued fines.
“They pushed it all the way to the top and now, when they’ve run out of options, they back down – that’s crazy,” he said. “Someone has to foot that entire legal bill for everyone else.”
Late on Tuesday, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT issued a statement calling for the remaining 29,000 Covid fines to be withdrawn. The chief executive, Karly Warner, said it should not have been left to cash-strapped community legal services like the Redfern Legal Centre to ensure the enforcement system was lawful.
“The government has dragged people through the courts only to concede that some fines may never have been valid in the first place,” Warner said. “How many more people does it plan to put through this ordeal before accepting that all Covid fines must be cancelled?”
Revenue NSW said the remaining fines would not be withdrawn.
“The remaining 29,017 Covid-19 fines will still be required to be paid if not already resolved,” the agency said in a statement. “They are not affected by this decision.”
Warner said the fines had an “unfair and unequal impact on Aboriginal people”. Data published by the Guardian showed regional communities with high Aboriginal populations – including Coonamble, Bourke, Wilcannia and Walgett – received the largest volume of Covid fines per capita.
“Aboriginal people have lost their driver’s licences as a result of unpaid Covid fines which has flow-on effects in being unable to get to work, take kids to school, shop for groceries, or go to health appointments,” she said.
“Community have been forced on to payment plans they can’t afford, which is stressful at any time of year and doubly so as we enter the festive season.”
Revenue NSW said Redfern Legal Centre had argued the fines were invalid on a “technical basis” and said the decision “does not mean the offences were not committed”.
The Law Society of NSW urged the government to review the remaining 29,000 fines. The president, Joanne van der Plaat, said the society had previously said many fines would have been issued incorrectly, given the frequent changes to the laws during the pandemic.
“This decision leaves unresolved the status of more than 29,000 fines that may impose a disproportionate burden of penalties on vulnerable and disadvantaged people,” Van der Plaat said.
“We encourage Revenue NSW to review all remaining Covid-19 related fines, especially any imposed on children.”