Our action leads to changed Victorian fines laws

Our action leads to changed Victorian fines laws

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Victoria Legal Aid action highlighting unfair fines laws has seen the Victorian Government introduce reforms aimed at keeping disadvantaged people who can’t pay their fines out of jail.

Legislative amendments will address an anomaly in fines law, where there was no rehearing right for people facing jail for unpaid fines.

Introducing the amendments to Parliament, Attorney-General Robert Clark said the reforms responded to issues brought to light in two recent test cases where Victoria Legal Aid represented people with disabilities who faced jail for unpaid fines.

Victoria Legal Aid Director Civil Justice, Access and Equity Kristen Hilton said the recent Court of Appeal decisions regarding Zakariah Taha and Tarni Brookes drew attention to serious problems with fines law.

’Like many people with disabilities Mr Taha and Ms Brookes had accumulated many fines and struggled to deal with them. Their situations were powerful examples of why the law needs urgent reform,’ she said.

‘They were sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment for failing to pay their fines, because the courts hearing their cases did not initially take into account their circumstances when sentencing them. Unlike other offences, fines law does not allow for their case to be appealed or re-heard when new material comes to light.

‘As a result, even when the circumstances of Mr Taha and Ms Brookes became apparent, there was no chance of having the matter reconsidered. They were going directly to prison.’

Victoria Legal Aid‘s representation of Mr Taha and Ms Brookes led to a unanimous Court of Appeal ruling in March 2013 that, in the absence of an appeal right, magistrates have a duty to make reasonable enquiries about whether people coming before them have special circumstances such as a disability.

The Victorian Parliament has now passed reforms which will allow a limited rehearing right, through its Sentencing Amendment (Abolition of Suspended Sentences and Other Matters) Bill 2013.

Ms Hilton welcomed other initiatives in this year’s Victorian budget which will allow the earlier identification of people who due to their disability or mental health issues are racking up a large number of fines. But she said further steps are needed to ensure the system isn’t inadvertently entrenching disadvantage or criminalising poverty.

‘The fines system is still fundamentally confusing, inflexible and complex. While these reforms are important steps forward, we’ll continue to advocate for a fairer system for people who are disadvantaged,’ she said.

More information

Dealing with fines

If you have a media enquiry, contact Kerrie Soraghan on (03 9269 0660.

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