Report shows marginalised children targeted with covid fines

Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited (ALS) are calling for immediate reform of the NSW fines system as a new report reveals that a heavy-handed approach to policing public health orders (PHOs) resulted in 3,628 children in NSW receiving COVID fines. 

Read the report

‘Children and COVID-19 Fines in NSW: Impacts and Lessons for the Future Use of Penalty Notices’ was commissioned by RLC, PIAC and ALS and prepared by academics from the University of Wollongong, the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney. Key findings include:

  • Fines were disproportionately issued to marginalised groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with cognitive impairments, and children experiencing socio-economic challenges, homelessness, or unsafe home environments.
  • Children living in relatively disadvantaged suburbs were over-policed and many of the suburbs where the most fines were issued to children are identified as ‘most disadvantaged’ by the Australian Government’s SEIFA index. 
  • More than half of the fines issued were for $1,000, with some reaching $5,000, far surpassing the maximum $1,100 fine that can be given in the NSW Children’s Court. 
  • Police relied heavily on punitive options, including fines and court attendance notices, rather than diversionary options that were available.
  • Many children and families faced financial hardship because of the fines, which compounded disadvantage. 

The report also highlights the rapid pace of legislative changes, especially during the Delta wave of the pandemic, with an average of one new or revised public health order issued every 1.5 days. These frequent changes made it difficult for children to understand and comply with the rules, and also ledto errors in police enforcement.

This report highlights the urgent need to learn from the pandemic and reform the fines system to protect children’s rights and well-being. 

Camilla Pandolfini, CEO of Redfern Legal Centre, said:  ‘Our experience of working with children, young people, and their families who were issued Covid fines indicates that police were disproportionately  targeting First Nations children and children from socio-economically disadvantaged areas. Children cannot pay heavy fines, and the deterrent effect is low. Fines are oppressive, discriminatory, and ineffective when used against children. We call for changes to policy, practice, and procedure to ensure that fines do not compound existing disadvantage and criminalise children.’

Karly Warner, CEO of Aboriginal Legal Service, said: ‘Aboriginal communities set the gold standard for caring for one another during the Covid-19 pandemic, yet our children paid a higher price because of the Government’s punitive approach to enforcing public health orders. Fines are an extension of the way Aboriginal children are criminalised and punished in NSW. It’s time to reform the archaic and unjust fines system.’

Report Author Dr. Julia Quilter said: ‘Policing kids by issuing heavy fines during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted, in extreme form, the problems with our fines system more generally. Kids have no or little capacity to pay fines and saddling them with crippling debts only sets them up for future failure. This is especially troubling given that fines are disproportionately issued by police to vulnerable kids already experiencing socio-economic and other forms of disadvantage. Police need to stop issuing fines to kids and engage in diversionary and creative problem-solving policing.’

Jonathon Hunyor, PIAC CEO, said: ‘We need an urgent rethink of the fines system in NSW. Creating massive debts for children and families simply amplifies disadvantage and builds distrust in the system.’

Pin It on Pinterest