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Unpaid fines worth $1 billion

Briefs

Cite as: July 2014 88 (07) LIJ, p.12

The Sentencing Advisory Council (SAC) has called for tougher sanctions, including possible overseas travel restrictions on those with outstanding default warrants, to deal with the more than $400 million in unpaid fines in Victoria each year.

But its report, The Imposition and Enforcement of Court Fines and Infringement Penalties in Victoria, released in late May, also backed more payment and discharge options for disadvantaged people so the most vulnerable do not have to go to court.

These included halving penalty amounts for children, those on welfare benefits and those experiencing financial hardship. Courts would be required to take financial circumstances into account in determining the fines.

SAC chair Professor Arie Freiberg told the LIJ the report was governed by three key principles: fairness, compliance and credibility. Payment of fines was important for the system’s credibility – “if you are not paying you have not received a sanction,” he said.

But the perception of unfairness particularly undermined the system’s credibility.

LIV president Geoff Bowyer welcomed the report on this “difficult issue”, in particular the recommendations aimed at preventing repeated court appearances by the disadvantaged.

“It is shortsighted to simply criminalise people who can’t pay fines,” he said. “At the same time, we accept that there are some who avoid their obligations to pay fines, such as some companies and people who wilfully refuse to pay.

“The courts need discretion to deal with people’s different circumstances when they are considering fine evasion,” he said.

The report said about 40 per cent of individuals and 36 per cent of companies receiving court fines fail to pay them. More than 700,000 of the infringement notices issued by agencies such as police and local governments remain unpaid each year. In 2012-13 6 million notices were issued.

Professor Freiberg estimated unpaid fines in Victoria alone were worth more than $1 billion –an eye-opener for some since the report’s publication.

The report categorised those receiving fines as those who shouldn’t pay because they had a valid defence, can’t pay e.g. because of hardship, and won’t pay. Its 49 recommendations advocated a harder line with this third category.

It proposed harmonising the enforcement of fines and infringement penalties with a single collection agency, as in other states. It supported sanctions including licence suspension, detaining and selling vehicles, seizing and selling personal property, attachment of earnings and debts and registration of a charge over and sale of real estate.

The SAC recommended making directors personally liable for payment of a corporation’s fines. Professor Freiberg said the “corporate veil” should not be used to avoid payment.

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