Fines Reform and Infringements Acts Amendment Bill 2016

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — It is a pleasure to rise to speak this afternoon on the Fines Reform and Infringements Acts Amendment Bill 2016. I would like to preface my commentary on the bill by just saying that the administration of justice requires a very delicate balancing act, because it deals with complex and critical issues. It deals with us very interesting characters as human beings who are keen to express our rights and make sure that we live up to our responsibilities, and I do not think it can be condensed to some arguments like those I have heard from those opposite around whether we are ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ on crime. The administration of justice — the legal system — cannot just be considered in terms of a hard or soft dichotomy; it has to be a fair, just, enforceable and enforced area for us, as human beings and community members, to be able to work wisely and fairly in.

This bill before us is an attempt to get the balance right. It is an attempt to make sure that we have a system that is fair but also enforceable and enforced. I am a great fan of this quote from Martin Luther King Jr:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I think that in this system that we live in it is very important that in trying to enforce things we do not create injustice, because as Dr King pointed out in the famous speech from which the quote was taken, if we allow injustice to spread, the whole system can become corrupt and it can become very much vulnerable to collapse.

This bill, in dealing with fines and infringements, is tackling what is not a small problem, I must say; it is actually a very big job that this bill has taken on. If you just look at the statistics, you see that court fines are overwhelmingly the most common sentence imposed in Victoria. In 2012–13, 40.1 per cent of those sentenced received a fine, amounting to 114 034 court fines imposed in that year. In 2012–13, just under 6 million infringement notices were issued in Victoria, so this is a big issue. It is something that we really have to tackle because, as I know, in the City of Casey we are not doing well with paying our infringements and are not doing well with paying our court fines.

In fact an article in the Berwick Leader in January at the start of this year headed ‘Thousands in a fine mess’ says:

Justice officers are chasing south-east residents for close to $200 million in unpaid fines.

Casey residents had 351 407 warrants issued for them in the 12 months to June 2015 — the highest in the state by almost 100 000 — and owed more than $123 million, averaging more than $4000 a debtor.

In fact, the state sheriff said the fine numbers were concerning, and he pointed out there was a lot of ‘correlation between growing populations’ and the fines.

I know that many people in my electorate are experiencing mortgage stress and finding it very difficult to pay their bills. I raised this matter with the Attorney-General prior to the introduction of this bill — that is, that with many people experiencing mortgage stress and having difficulty paying their bills unfortunately some of those bills are infringement notices or court fines.

I have a wonderful organisation in the electorate called the Casey North Community Information Support Service. Its representatives have met with me and the Attorney-General is going out to meet them in coming weeks just to talk about how dire the circumstances are of many of the people in my electorate who are grappling with paying the accumulation of fine amounts they have incurred. They are having great difficulty in paying very large fines.

The Casey North service has given me a couple of case studies, and I will show members what dire circumstances people are in and why this bill is very important. For example, Lucy and Michael have four children. The youngest is six months old. They have approximately $4500 in toll fines. Michael was diagnosed with bipolar a month ago and lost his job due to the condition. These fines were accumulated over a period of time in which Michael was unwell. His mental health condition meant that he left the fines unattended to, and administration fees accumulated leaving him with several thousand dollars in debt. Here is a young family trying to make ends meet, and they have this huge debt in fines hanging over their heads.

Another case is Simon, a young man in the second year of an apprenticeship. He used a toll road on a weekend and had a couple of days to make the payment. When he went to make the payment, he realised that he was not getting paid until the day after it was due. He paid the toll; however, because it was a day late, he received a further fine. He could not afford to pay this fine with the added fees, and due to his mental health condition he was extremely anxious about trying to contact civic compliance, so he left it. Anyway, he has over $4000 in administration fees attached to that small toll amount, which now totals approximately $7000. He did not know where assistance was available, and he did not know where to ask for help.

There are the cases of a family and a young man. Yes, they probably should have asked for help earlier. Yes, they should have tried to pay back the fines even a little bit at a time. But the fact is that they were either unable to get the advice necessary to give them that way out of the situation or were just too unwell. With their circumstances of accumulated debts of all descriptions, in addition to house payments to make, families to look after and health bills to pay, life got really tough for these people. There are many hundreds of people like them, and that is why this bill is very important.

We know that it is hard to ask for help, but we also know that if you do get to the point where you get the right advice, you can work your way through the system. I am not of the opinion — as some of those opposite are — that you should go to jail for this sort of infringement. I personally feel as though we should have an emphasis on trying to provide a criminal justice system that meets the needs of vulnerable people, reduces the rates of reoffending and imprisonment, and at the same time — and we can do this — makes Victoria a safer place. This bill goes a long way to achieving those objectives.

The social justice initiatives for early commencement include the introduction of the expanded work and development permit scheme, introduction of a new internal review grounds where a person is unaware of the infringement notice having been served and repeal of the automatic referral to the Magistrates Court of refused special circumstances applications. This will certainly help to keep vulnerable people out of court. The bill is welcomed by the community, especially by those support services that, as I have mentioned, are experiencing great numbers of these people coming into their agencies looking for help.

I commend the work of the Attorney-General. It is certainly not a soft-on-crime situation. It is about making sure that we have a system that is credible and enforceable, because although those people who incur fines are breaking the law, we also need to have a robust system of safeguards for vulnerable people that is a fairer system but is a system that can be enforced.

I commend the Attorney-General for bringing the bill to the house. I also very much look forward to his visit to Narre Warren South. I know that the people at the Casey North Community Support Service will have lots of ideas about how we can make Victoria a better place for the disadvantaged and vulnerable, because those people work really hard to make sure that we live in a more socially just society.