(Contribution to Debate, 07 March 2017, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
I rise to make a brief contribution to the Fines Amendment Bill, which removes the requirement to suspend a driver licence or cancel motor vehicle registration as the first line of enforcement action for someone who has defaulted on their fines, and allows restitution debts to be enforced as fines.
Fines present major difficulties for very disadvantaged people. Those whose income barely covers their day to day expenses like rent, electricity and food, struggle to pay back fines. While socially and economically disadvantaged people have fewer means to pay fines, they are more likely to be fined for offences such as drinking in public places or not having payed the right public transport fare.
Money owed from fines for disadvantaged people can escalate rapidly because they may have less capacity to manage the fines processing system, and they may find accessing the courts and seeking legal advice or special consideration challenging. Last month a woman who lives in community housing contacted my office about car parking fines that had reached several thousands of dollars.
The bill would allow civil enforcement options to be taken against debt defaulters without having to take action through the Roads and Maritime Services first. This would provide more flexibility in fine collection, helping to tailor a more appropriate fine payback process for vulnerable people who may be unreasonably disadvantaged from the loss of a licence or vehicle registration. It would also avoid adding the $40 fee to money owed by a defaulter, which is an automatic fee imposed by RMS when it takes action. This is an important change in making the fines system more reasonable and fair to those who can suffer real hardship as a result of fines.
I would like to raise one concern brought to my attention by the Redfern Legal Centre about this change. The Redfern Legal Centre runs a free legal advice and advocacy service for people experiencing money problems and deals with many vulnerable people in debt due to accumulated fines.
Redfern legal solicitors are concerned that the bill fails to specify what information the commissioner must know about the personal circumstances of the fine defaulter before making a decision over whether civil enforcement action is preferable before other, more serious action is taken. The bill does not include any guidance on what information the commissioner must know. I ask the minister to respond to this concern and ensure that the process is comprehensive and guarantees fairness.
I also support transferring recovery of restitution debts to the Commissioner of Fines Administration given the trial showed that this significantly helps reduce these debts. It is particularly helpful for prisoners to make a fresh start on release if they are not burdened with heavy debt. However there is concern that because the Office of State Revenue will speed up the enforcement process of restitution debt, individuals might have less time to seek legal advice before more serious action is taken such as a garnishee order for wages or bank accounts. I ask that the government monitor access to legal help in the transfer of enforcement of these debts and make changes if needed.
A NSW Sentencing Council interim report from 2006 identified over 17,000 offences that come under the penalty notice system which creates many occasions for vulnerable people to incur fines that lead to hardship. I support the additional flexibility this bill introduces to the enforcement system to help people reduce the burden of debt.