Fines worth $2.1m issued to 2,844 children aged 10-17 since middle of 2020, drawing ire of legal and advocacy groups
Almost 3,000 children have been hit with hefty fines of up to $5,000 for minor Covid breaches in New South Wales, prompting a furious response from legal groups, who say the punishments are crushing disadvantaged families.
Data obtained by the Redfern Legal Centre under freedom of information shows fines worth $2.1m have been issued to 2,844 children aged 10-17 since the middle of last year.161221_RLC-MR_Children-COVID-Fines_fnlv
More than half the children received a fine of $1,000. Seventeen children were fined $5,000 and 39 were fined $3,000.
Redfern Legal Centre’s police accountability solicitor Samantha Lee said she had seen examples of children with intellectual disabilities receiving fines.
The penalty amounts, she said, were disproportionately hurting those from disadvantaged areas, causing both financial burden and stress.
“These fines are enormous … it’s just absurd to even think we should issue such a fine to a child, there’s no way they can pay,” Lee said.
“We’re doing this for families on Centrelink, and not only is it a financial impact, there’s an emotional impact.
“There’s often a parent who will ring me with the child near them and the stress and the tension that the fine has created in the relationship between the child and the parent cannot be underestimated.”
The most common breach resulting in a fine was failing to comply with a direction under the public health act, which Lee said was a catch-all offence used to fine people who had, for example, sat on a park bench but not breached a gathering rule, sat alone in their car, gone to the shop with another member of their household, or walked on the street without a valid reason.Children-and-COVID-fines_131221
More than 1,500 fines were issued for that offence, accounting for $1.59m of the fines.
Other breaches included not wearing a mask, not complying with curfews, not carrying identification outside greater Sydney, and not complying with restrictions on outdoor gatherings.
Lee said fines for such breaches should only be issued as a last resort. Even where they were issued, fines for children in NSW were significantly higher than other states.
In Victoria, the maximum penalty for Covid-19 fines is $91 for children under 15 and $454 for children aged 15-18.
“It’s not an equal playing field out there. Not all of us have a five-bedroom house with a pool in the back,” Lee said. “Kids I’ve seen are just doing things kids do. They’re out playing or wanting to get out of the house. It’s been a very trying time for everyone.”
The Redfern Legal Centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre are calling on the NSW government to revoke the fines and issue cautions instead.
Acting chief executive of ALS NSW/ACT, Nadine Miles, said the data reveals a failure by police to exercise discretion.
She said fines were issued disproportionately in Indigenous communities.
“Crushing fines only exacerbate the significant disadvantage that many of our young clients already face,” she said. “The ALS continues to call for all Covid-19 fines issued to children under 18 to be withdrawn or converted to formal cautions.”NSWPolice_Children_fines_101221
The NSW finance minister Damien Tudehope said the government made “no apologies for putting the health of the people of NSW first”.
“COVID-19 is a highly infectious and at times deadly disease,” he said. “In the past 2 years the Government has acted quickly in response to the health advice and introduced a number of restrictions to help protect communities across the state.”
Tudehope said everyone was entitled to request a review of their fines through Revenue NSW.
“We take breaches of the Public Health Orders very seriously and if you do the wrong thing, you will be caught and held accountable for your actions, this is the community’s expectation.”
But Chief executive of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Jonathon Hunyor, said the fines were setting children up to fail.
Hunyor said Revenue NSW’s attempts to recover the money from children would only “compound the hardship faced by families who may be doing it tough”.
“As our community looks to recover from the pandemic, issuing cautions makes much more sense that seeking to extract this money from children.”