Victoria Legal Aid

Criminalising toll debt puts strain on overstretched courts

We have raised concerns that unpaid toll fines, which are debts to private companies, are ending up in the criminal justice system and burdening our overstretched courts.

Wednesday 15 February 2017 12:00am

Manager Social Inclusion Damian Stock with our client Kelly who accumulated $30,000 in road toll fines while she and her family were homeless.

Almost half the fines that end up in Victorian courts stem from the use of toll roads, raising concerns from legal assistance agencies about the impact of extended tolling in the Western Distributor and on existing toll roads for a further 10 years.

Victoria Legal Aid and a coalition of legal assistance agencies are calling for change to the tolls fine system, which places a heavy burden on courts and enforcement agencies while delivering harsh and disproportionate outcomes for people, especially those in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Read more about Kelly's story in The Age, Mountain of road fines taking a toll on drivers as CityLink takes the legal routeExternal Link , 15 February 2017.

The impact of toll fines

In the 2014–15 financial year 5.32 million infringements were issued in Victoria. Of those, 1.78 million were lodged with the Infringements Court and became enforcement orders with increased sanctions. Forty-eight per cent of the enforcement orders were for infringements resulting from the use of toll roads.

Victoria Legal Aid Manager Social Inclusion Damian Stock said, ‘Criminalising private debt in this way is at odds with other Australian jurisdictions, and is placing unsustainable pressure on already over-stretched courts.

‘In contrast, New South Wales also has tolls but now enforces these in the same way as other civil law debts. This change was introduced because, as is now still the case in Victoria, people were going to jail because of a debt to a privately owned company.

'People do not go to prison for failing to pay other private debts, and they should not be jailed for non-payment of road tolls.'

Mr Stock said that the burden being placed on families and communities by the mounting toll debts is huge and has an impact on legal services’ ability to meet demand for their services.

‘Concerns about infringements were the third most common reason that people contacted our phone information and advice line, and accounted for 14,000 advice and duty law services.

‘Community legal centres have also noted an increase of infringements activity by 65 per cent in the past four years.

‘Failure to pay for using a toll road quickly escalates from between $2.32 and $8.69 to use the road, to $344.96 on the issuing of an infringement warrant. Toll warrant debt is rising exponentially, with $686 million owing at 30 June 2015, comprising 40 per cent of all warrant debt.

‘Toll infringements have a disproportionate impact on outer suburban road users who have fewer transport alternatives, and an unknown number of people are currently in prison for toll road use.’

Mr Stock said it was unclear how much public funding is used to ensure compliance with driving on private toll roads.

Reform options

A 2014 Sentencing Advisory Council reviewExternal Link recognised the burden toll fines place on the system and recommended the government establish a working group to explore solutions. This has not been taken up.

‘The Fines Reform Act 2014 introduced some welcome changes, but did not make changes to toll fines being enforced through the criminal justice system,’ Mr Stock said.

Last year’s Royal Commission into Family Violence reportExternal Link recommended consideration be given to removing infringements matters from the Magistrates’ Court to ensure resources are allocated to higher priority matters.

Moving enforcement from the criminal justice system to civil remedies would bring them into line with other debt enforcement processes and could involve court examination of finances, property seizure, garnishee orders, licence or vehicle registration cancellation and community service orders.

Read the briefing paper

Download A more fair and efficient toll fines system for Victoria – briefing paper (pdf, 852.26 KB)

Reviewed 19 April 2022