4 March 2020

A fairer fines system: sensible reform will increase equity

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA
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Parking Ticket

Fines and infringements shouldn’t disproportionately penalise people just because they earn less money than others. Photo: File.

This election there will be a lot of talk about the cost of living in Canberra. And while most of us have times when we really feel the pressure of competing bills, there is no doubt that the most significant financial pressure is felt in the lowest income households in Canberra.

Given this, it is vital that we ensure that our infringement penalty system is fair and doesn’t further disproportionately penalise people just because they earn less money than others. A current push to make our infringement penalty system in the ACT fairer is one way we can do this. It’s a move that will ensure that people in the lowest income households aren’t unintentionally forced into undue financial hardship if they receive an infringement.

While most people do the right thing, most of us have made the occasional mistake and been the subject of a parking fine or other penalty. This is annoying and frustrating but it doesn’t create major issues when it’s time to pony up and pay the fine.

For some households, however, it’s a catastrophic event. With budgets so tight covering essential items such as housing, utilities, transport, food and health costs, even a relatively small fine can mean not enough food on the table, or an inability to pay for medicines or the winter electricity bill.

Amendments to the law introduced by the ACT Greens last month aim to make the system fairer.

It provides the opportunity for payment plans to be introduced to a much wider range of penalties. This recognises that a big one-off unexpected bill can be unmanageable, but when people have time to plan, it can be more practical and realistic. The changes provide the option for penalties to be worked off or paid through voluntary work and other contributions. This recognises that for some people they may have few financial resources but may be able to provide their labour for social good.

Finally, the new changes also provide the ability in some circumstances for penalties to be waived. There are some circumstances where there are no realistic prospects of being able to recover the fine, and a recognition that given the nature of the penalty it is not beneficial to pursue payment.

This isn’t about letting some people off from paying penalties. Rather, it’s about recognising the very different impact of these types of penalties on different types of households. This is not a new consideration, and in some countries, they have gone so far as to introduce income-based traffic fines. This approach aims to ensure a proportionate impact on all people subject to these fines, rather than the same penalty applying independent of whether or not you are a millionaire or a low-income earner.

We also know that disadvantage can increase the likelihood of being fined.

If you are homeless and sleeping rough for instance, you are more likely to be attracting the attention of the authorities, may not have access to resources and more likely to undertake activity that may be subject to fines and penalties. We also know that if you are disadvantaged, you are more likely to accrue multiple fines, have less capacity to pay these fines, and face significant debt from mounting penalties. The proposed changes to how we administer our infringement penalty system will take some pressure off those who are most greatly impacted.

I think it’s important that we ensure our infringement penalty system is fair and doesn’t further penalise people at the lower end of the income scale. What are your ideas about how to make our infringement penalty system fairer?

Rebecca Vassarotti is an ACT Greens candidate in the upcoming Territory election.

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Do the crime do the time, or in this instance pay the price. What’s wrong with just paying your fines as you deserve them?

A step in the right direction would be that the courts ought not to impose more of the same for failing to abide by a formerly imposed penalty. The penalty for not paying fines should not be more fines. The penalty for driving while disqualified should not be a lengthening of the period of disqualification. First, why impose more of the same, when imposing that penalty didn’t work the first time? And second an more importantly, let’s stop trapping people in pits where they are only going to dig themselves deeper. It should be feasible for an offender to one day become a regular member of society again.

“It should be feasible for an offender to one day become a regular member of society again.” and “The penalty for not paying fines should not be more fines. The penalty for driving while disqualified should not be a lengthening of the period of disqualification.”
An offender can become a regular member of society again when they stop offending? Your suggestion that repeat offenders will magically become model citizens if only we stopped giving them consequences defies logic.

A truly “fair” system would not impose any monetary fines but would simply use a points system the same as other traffic infringements.

But we all know that governments are too wedded to the revenue received to ever do that.

“This isn’t about letting some people off from paying penalties”.
Actually that’s exactly what you’re saying.

Capital Retro10:35 am 05 Mar 20

“It’s a move that will ensure that people in the lowest income households aren’t unintentionally forced into undue financial hardship if they receive an infringement.”

The best way to avoid this situation is to not receive the infringement in the first place. This requires individual discipline which may be challenging for some. I have been in Canberra 40 years and in driving at least a million kilometres in that time I have only received one speeding ticket. If I can do it so can everyone else.

Are you suggesting people take responsibility for their poor decisions? That would be against everything the watermelon party stand for.

Capital Retro4:45 pm 05 Mar 20

On reflection, I was fantasizing a bit when I wrote that.

How about the Greens help poorer Canberrans who are struggling with exorbitant rents, high annual rates, removed bus services, poor health outcomes , declining education performance and cuts to community facilities in the outer suburbs.

This announcement smacks of single issue grandstanding, not on actually addressing the difficult financial situations for many struggling Canberra residents. Financial issues that have been exacerbated by ACT Greens and Labor policies.

Please address the real issue and the main dish, not the garnish on the side of the plate.

The ACT greens, yet again expanding class division by allowing people with less money to avoid punishment.

Well done, comrades. Stalin would be proud.

The alternate to ever trying to fiddle the fines system to suit a minority is just to do the right thing and not get fined. Its really not hard in 99.5% of cases. When things go wrong and there are genuine compassionate reasons/extenuating circumstances, the ability to waive is already there. These ideas of letting people do alternatives such as community service, or pay it off at 10c a fortnight provides significant negative incentives to actually do the right thing in the first place.

Income based fines are a rubbish idea, because the nature of the offence is the same independent of income. If you are doing 15km over the speed limit, its an offence irrespective of whether you earn $1 or $100 or a million dollars. On that basis the fine should be consistent across people, as the offence is the same.

Its pretty simple at the end of the day – follow the rules and you have nothing to worry about it.

Ray Whitehead8:59 am 05 Mar 20

Rebecca is correct in her characterization of the impact of the growing burden of fines on the population. However the problem, while affordability is a major issue, is that there is no identifiable nexus between the offence and the fine. It is purely a budget measure.
Given that the politicians who keep increasing them, the police who constantly scream for more and the senior bureaucrats that draft these fines are not, in any practical sense, subject to them ( they in practice have them quietly waived as a matter of course unless some journalist gets wind)there is no incentive for them to keep them grounded.
maybe a better way forward is that all fines, fees and charges levied by the govt be subject to indexation.
I suggest that the baseline should be either the complete remuneration package of the Chief Minister or the highest paid public servant and the fine can then be expressed as a % of that base. When an ordinary person is then hit ( I mean those people who haven’t got a snowballs chance of getting it waived) then the fine, fee or levy can then be calculated to have exactly the same effect on them as it does on the elites who only have a nominal liability.
While we have the situation of the elites just setting figures that they they can afford, but safe in the knowledge it doesn’t apply to them the whole system is heading towards the same state as we have let medicine get to where soon fines, fees and levies will routinely bankrupt people through no real fault of their own.

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