Victoria urged to waive all Covid fines after reports some officers not correctly authorised

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Legal groups say the Victorian government should waive all fines issued under coronavirus public health orders following reports that some of those recruited to issue the fines were not properly authorised.

The government separately promised 12 months ago to review fines issued under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to ensure they passed the common sense test. That resulted in hundreds of fines being challenged in the magistrates court.

Community legal services have been calling for fines to be waived since 2020, arguing they disproportionately affected marginalised communities and had in some cases been issued to people who were acting in accordance with the law.

Police in New South Wales have also been accused of issuing fines under that state’s public health legislation unfairly and incorrectly, with an alliance of legal centres calling for the fines to be withdrawn.

Related: Unfair Covid fines causing hardship and should not be enforced, advocates say

Inner Melbourne Community Legal’s chief executive, Damian Stock, said the reported failure to correctly authorise fining officers strengthened the argument.

“The various different arguments for why they should all be scrapped are really stacking up,” he said. “It would be a particularly unfair and heartless government to continue to pursue fines considering this litany of errors.”

The Victorian government recruited the authorised officers in 2020 to enforce its public health orders, including issuing fines for breaching lockdown orders under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act.

But the Herald Sun has reported that as many as 40 authorised officers were not properly gazetted and therefore did not have the power to issue fines.

The Department of Justice and Community Safety said it was “currently reviewing our administrative processes relating to the appointment of a small number of authorised officers and the issuing of some enforcement outcomes”.

“If the review were to identify any issues, the department would then work to confirm whether any enforcement outcomes are affected,” it said.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive, Nerita Waight, said Victoria had issued more fines for breaching pandemic health orders than “almost any other jurisdiction globally” and those resources should have been directed to bolstering the health system.

“We had many clients who were unfairly issued Covid fines and we found the whole process to be opaque and frankly lacking,” Waight said.

Waight said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were issued Covid fines at a higher rate than the rest of the community.

Related: Victoria police powers under scrutiny after fines issued for exercise and going to supermarket

“This unfairness was exacerbated by the lack of an independent review process for Covid fines. Waiving fines issued by officers without the correct authorisation is the right thing to do, as the community shouldn’t have to suffer because of the government’s stuff up.”

Waight said that the vast majority of public health fines seen by VALS had been “unreasonably issued” and she called for an amnesty on “all but the most serious breaches”.

Victoria police has refused to release detailed demographic data about who was issued fines and is fighting a freedom of information request made by community legal centres seeking that data.

At a minimum, there should be a moratorium on pursuing people over unpaid Covid fines, Stock said.

“We can’t have people having charges, being taken to court, having sanctions put on their vehicle, all the things that can happen if you have unpaid fines.

“That needs to stop right away – we cannot have enforcement action out on fines that may have been issued by people who were not authorised to issue them.”

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