While progress is being made, more should be done to protect vulnerable people from onerous fines and infringements, writes Justice Connect Homeless Law’s Principal Lawyer Lucy Adams.
Justice Connect Homeless Law has a long history of acting for Victorians experiencing homelessness who are issued with fines and infringement notices. Last year alone, we opened 77 new files for clients facing 231 infringements for public transport offences, with a total value of nearly $83,000.
Not having a ticket in Victoria means a fine of $223. If you’re on a Newstart Allowance, that’s 85% of your weekly income. Just $39 remains for food, accommodation and health expenses.
Most of our clients end up having their fines waived due to special circumstances – homelessness, mental illness and substance dependence – but the process involved in reaching this point is complicated, resource intensive, costly to the taxpayer and highly stressful for vulnerable people.
In March, we put together a position paper on public transport and homelessness, called Fair’s Fare. We also joined with 35 other community legal centres and financial counselling organisations as part of the Infringements Working Group to publish On Track to Fairer Fares and Fines.
In late May, the Victorian Government handed down its Report of the review into public transport ticketing compliance and enforcement and the Ombudsman released her Investigation into public transport fare evasion enforcement. Both reports highlighted the punitive impact of public transport ticketing on vulnerable Victorians.
Some of their key recommendations included:
- SCRAPPING the $75 on-the-spot penalty fares
- TARGETTING “deliberate and recidivist fare evaders”, not vulnerable people or accidental non-compliance
- BETTER TRAINING for authorised officers to help them make more appropriate decisions on the frontline
- GUIDELINES to encourage early exit for vulnerable people through warnings and internal reviews so they don’t get caught up in the stressful and expensive court system.
The report PTV and DEDJTR didn’t want you to read: Ombudsman slams ‘unfair and costly’ myki enforcement regime https://t.co/DtfsQxby6z
— Adam Carey (@adamlcarey) May 26, 2016
The evidence of the community legal sector had been taken on board by the Government and the Ombudsman and many of Homeless Law’s 15 recommendations were reflected in these reports. This makes us optimistic that, in the future, there will be less public money wasted on trying to enforce fines against people who simply can’t pay.
In particular, we welcome the recognition by the Government—and the express recommendation by the Ombudsman—that a ‘Protocol for People who are Homeless in Public Places’ would help authorised officers to exercise discretion. Rather than fining homeless people without a ticket, authorised officers will be trained to refer them to specialised services.
But prevention is always better than cure, and the benefits of free travel for vulnerable people (through the Access Travel Pass scheme) were also recognised in the Government’s report. We hope this is strengthened and promoted to prevent highly vulnerable people from entering the infringements system in the first place.
There are still further steps we would like to see taken, such as a concession-based fine system. It makes sense that people earning 20% of the average income should be able to pay 20% of the standard fine.
Ultimately, the position of Homeless Law and the Infringements Working Group is that concession card holders should have access to free travel on public transport. This would recognise that accessible public transport for low-income Victorians is a critical part of a fairer, more inclusive community where all Victorians can get from A to B.
Homeless Law congratulates the Victoria Government on its commitment to a fairer public transport system for all Victorians. But the real potential for change lies in the implementation, and we look forward to working alongside the Government as these positive changes take shape. ▉
Lucy Adams is the Manager and Principal Lawyer of Justice Connect Homeless Law, a specialist free legal service for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. If you or your clients could benefit from Homeless Law’s assistance, call 1800 606 313 or visit the website.
For personal perspectives on the impact of the fines and infringements system on people experiencing homelessness, watch and listen to, In the Public Eye: Personal Stories of Homelessness and Fines.