Fining the homeless doesn't make sense – our submission to the City of Melbourne

Fining the homeless doesn't make sense – our submission to the City of Melbourne

Monday, 20 March 2017

We have urged the City of Melbourne to reconsider its proposed new bylaws affecting people who are homeless.

More than 200 people, according to the council's own figures, are believed to be 'sleeping rough' in the Melbourne CBD.

The amendment, which was endorsed by the council on 7 February, broadens the infringement offence for 'camping' and is likely to directly affect those in makeshift camps. It will also introduce a new infringement offence for leaving belongings unattended, and allows these to be confiscated.The council is now consulting further on its potential impact.

In a letter to the council, Victoria Legal Aid's Executive Director Civil Justice Access and Equity Dan Nicholson has pointed out the proposed new bylaw will result in increasing numbers of homeless people being caught in the infringements system.

Mr Nicholson says while the introduction of these new offences will increase the stress on the courts systems and legal assistance services, they are likely to be ineffective because state legislation ensures that people who are homeless almost always have their fines revoked or neutralised.

'The proposed bylaw is directly at odds with safeguards in Victoria's Infringements Act 2006,' Mr Nicholson says. 'This Act recognises that people experiencing homelessness are particularly susceptible to incurring infringements, and that struggling to deal with fines in itself can lead to a downward spiral and entrench long-term homelessness..

'The framework of the Act has protections which filter homeless people out of the infringements system and into a Special Circumstances List. The most common outcome for most homeless people, then, is that they do not have to pay their fines.

'So on the one hand, the council is introducing new offences which are directly targeted at those who are homeless, yet on the other hand, Victorian law is working to ensure people experiencing homelessness are not unfairly drawn into the system in the first place.

'There is no public benefit in having public resources dedicated to issuing an infringement for a person for behaviours associated with homelessness - and then dedicating other scarce resources to having that infringement dismissed.'

Mr Nicholson says that though there is a high likelihood that legal penalties for infringements will not ultimately be imposed on people who are homeless, navigating the system is itself stressful, and while fines remain unpaid and unresolved, consequences can be severe.

'For example, until an infringement is dealt with in the Special Circumstances List, a person may be vulnerable to a warrant being issued. This could mean their car is clamped or removed, and be a major setback for a person who is no longer sleeping on the street but is reliant on a car for work or accommodation and trying to turn their life around.'

More information

City of Melbourne information about proposed bylaws

Getting help with fines