How we helped overturn an imprisonment for unpaid fines

How we helped overturn an imprisonment for unpaid fines

If someone is sent to jail in Victoria for unpaid fines, they have no right to appeal the sentence: a right available for every other offence.

This means people have been jailed for relatively minor offences. Most vulnerable are those with disabilities or in financial hardship.

Margaret's case (not her real name) is one of many that have highlighted the need for the law to change in this area. The Victorian Parliament recognised this need and passed legislation that will create a limited right of re-hearing for people facing jail for unpaid fines.

Margaret’s story

When Margaret was arrested at her home in November 2011, she was understandably shocked and terrified. She was told she would be in prison for over a year.

Margaret had missed a payment on a court-ordered payment plan for $50,000 worth of outstanding fines. Although she’d been warned that a missed payment would mean imprisonment, she hadn’t believed it would actually happen without getting the chance to pay the arrears.

What no-one knew, including her family, was that Margaret had a serious gambling addiction. Because of it, she hadn’t been able to pay the instalments on the plan, let alone bills. In fact, many of Margaret’s fines were CityLink toll fines, accumulated when she worked as a courier and couldn’t afford to pay her e-TAG bills.

A middle-aged mother of two boys, Margaret was struggling with an addiction that started when she was 21 and intensified when she was retrenched, lost her home and became bankrupt. What started as an escape, quickly brought more hardship to Margaret’s family, prompting her husband to give her an ultimatum: the pokies or me. As far as he knew, she’d stopped.

It wasn’t until Margaret hit rock bottom in prison that she revealed her addiction, risking, as she thought, her marriage. Margaret’s husband stuck by her and her private lawyer referred her to us as a candidate for a grant of legal aid.

We argued in the Supreme Court that while Margaret did not have a right to appeal, there was a power to recall the warrant for her imprisonment in light of this new information. This argument was supported by our recent success in another unpaid fines case, which established that magistrates have a duty to enquire about special circumstances, such as disability or mental illness, that may influence their decision.

After four months in prison Margaret had a re-hearing with the original magistrate, who discharged Margaret’s fines in full and apologised for the distress the earlier decision had caused her and her family. He speculated that if he’d known about Margaret’s gambling addiction at the beginning, her penalty would have been very different.

How we can help you

If you’re having trouble dealing with fines, find out how you can get help.