Not such a fine thing: how to fix the penalty system

The essential problem with penalty notices is that they have a disproportionately negative effect on vulnerable people.

PIAC chief executive officer Edward Santow, commenting on this week’s release of a NSW Law Reform Commission report into the way fines and penalties are issued, said the system generates, reinforces and exacerbates disadvantage.

‘Accumulating massive debt adds to the problems of finding food and shelter if you are homeless, dealing with a mental illness or addressing the many problems of living in poverty,’ Mr Santow said.

The NSW Law Reform Commission report recommended that law enforcement officers should consider issuing cautions instead of penalty notices to ensure that homeless people and other disadvantaged people are not caught in a vicious cycle of debt.

 ‘Our experience, especially in running the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service, is that the penalty notice system needs to be modernised. The system should be based on the principles of fairness, proportionality and an understanding of the circumstances of disadvantaged people,’ Mr Santow said.

 ‘The NSW Law Reform Commission proposes some sensible, practical reforms. The notion that fines serve as a deterrent to offending behaviour is a myth when it comes to our client group. The Commission has rightly identified that flexibility is required in order to maintain fairness and public confidence in the system.

‘For example, we support the Commission’s recommendation that issuing officers be required to consider issuing a caution instead of a penalty notice, and for issuing officers to be given appropriate training on how to respond to vulnerable people.

‘We also support the Commission’s recommendation for a simpler and more straightforward system for people with cognitive and mental health impairments to seek leniency and special circumstances, including a specialist unit for clients in this category.’

Related coverage: Call for police to show mercy to those on the margins. The Australian, 4 April 2012.

Fine for some, but penalties lack fairnessSydney Morning Herald, 9 April 2012.

Read PIAC’s submissions and the LRC report.

Photo: Flikr

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