How To Get Out Of An 'Unfair' Coronavirus Fine
Several unfair coronavirus fines have already been revoked, and lawyers say people can and should appeal penalties they think are unfair.
Hundreds of Australians have copped heavy fines for breaching coronavirus rules in recent weeks, with police clamping down hard on restrictions around people unncessarily leaving home, or gathering in groups.
Nationwide, people have been slapped with fines of at least $1000 for leaving mandatory quarantine, visiting friends, driving "aimlessly", playing sport in groups, or having dinner parties, among countless other breaches. NSW has issued more than 470 penalty notices since March 17, while Victoria issued 158 fines in the 24 hours to 9am Monday alone.
But several well-publicised fines have been overturned after they were issued, with a number in Victoria especially. A teenage girl taking driving lessons with her mum, a man who was driving his car to visit a bike trail for exercise, and a man who visited a car wash late at night were all initially fined, before having the tickets revoked.
Police and politicians are encouraging citizens to dob in people doing the wrong thing, but lawyers and critics have argued the laws around Australia are confusing and may not stand up to court challenges.
"I think most cases could be overturned. The legislation is very unenforceable," claimed Sydney criminal lawyer, Annabel Wurth.
"Anyone could say they were doing something that's allowed in the rules. I’d love to see one [of the fines] be upheld, just to see what it would take."
"A bit confusing"
Wurth has set up as new legal service called COVID Rights, aiming to help people who come into contact with police over the coronavirus rules, and give advice to people confused by the restrictions.
"The legislation is a bit confusing," she told 10 daily.
"Most people never have to think about criminal law, so people are anxious to do the right thing. But overnight, acts that everyone was doing before have been criminalised."
Wurth said she had fielded a large number of requests since, with most people asking for advice on whether certain activities -- like visiting family, or having visitors -- are allowed.
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said last week that "a good rule of thumb is that if you are questioning whether you should be doing something, it is best to give it a miss" -- and Wurth said while police were not often fining people for a first offence, many people still wanted advice.
"There's been a few charges but I think the police have actually not been charging people easily, instead giving a warning first," she said.
"But some people think it's nice to have a lawyer saying its cool for them to do something. I’m happy to do it, because this came in overnight with few guidelines. People know what's right or wrong, but it’s confusing."
There is a finite list of 'reasonable' excuses to go outside -- shopping for essentials, work and school, exercise, or obtaining medical care, being chief among them -- but Samantha Lee, police accountability solicitor with Sydney's Redfern Legal Centre, said there were still limits on how police could enforce the rules.
"If you are approached by police, it is best to be cooperative but ask police why you have been approached. Police are legally required to provide you reasons, and still need to meet legal thresholds," she told 10 daily.
"Police also need to form suspicion that a person has committed or is committing a public health offence before requiring a person to provide their name and address, and before seeking to issue someone with a fine. Police do not have to issue you with a fine. Even if police are of the view that you have breached the law, you can request that police issue you with a warning."
She recommended people explain their 'reasonable excuse' to police if asked. The RLC has published a fact sheet on its website about police powers and coronavirus.
"If police issue you with a fine, they must provide reasons," she said.
"It is also important to know that there is no obligation to provide the police with your ID, unless you have been found to have committed an offence."
People 'fearful' to go out
The Police Accountability Project, spearheaded by Melbourne's Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, has launched a new website called Covid Policing, tracking coronavirus laws nationwide.
The first report of the new project spoke of "numerous reports" from citizens nationwide, complaining "of interactions with police that were unpleasant, clumsy, like being ‘interrogated’ or have left them feeling stressed, anxious or more fearful to go out again."
Numerous reports, most from Victoria, speak of police stopping people in the street or while exercising, to ask why they were outside. The project said it had received "28 reports of inappropriate or concerning police interaction" in its first week.
Contesting the fine
Coronavirus fines can be disputed in much the same way as a speeding or parking fine -- either through a written explanation, asking for a review, or in court.
"But it will take a long time, and it costs you money," Wurth warned.
"I think it would be good to have a few test cases in court."
Lee, from the Redfern Legal Centre, explained further for NSW citizens specifically.
"A person issued with a fine can request a review of their penalty notice by contacting Revenue NSW," she told 10 daily.
"They can also seek to appeal the penalty notice in the Local Court. It is best to seek legal advice before taking the matter to Court, as the Court may order you to pay further costs. But it is important to know that taking the matter to court is always an option."
Lee said people could also contact state revenue offices if they wish to plead financial hardship, ask for more time to pay, or request a reduction in the fine.
Wurth cited a Melbourne protest for refugee rights last week -- where one man was arrested, and 26 others fined more than $40,000 -- as a case which could be disputed in court.
Melbourne Activist Legal Support has been helping people threatened with fines at the protest. The MALS has been pushing for civil rights -- like protest -- not to be curtailed under restrictions, and in an article published by Sydney Criminal Lawyers, the group's founding member Erin Buckley suggested people dispute fines if they seem to not be in the spirit of the rules.
“It’s my view that if people are fined under these laws when protesting, they should consider contesting the fine,” Buckley told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
“It’s highly likely that if the laws are being used in a way not consistent with the purpose of protecting public health, the fine could be withdrawn or dismissed.”
SCL has also called for police to "show common sense when exercising their discretion", citing fines for people sitting alone on a bench or in their cars.