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Government shouldn’t be a debt collector for private toll roads

The Victorian Government is the Rocky Balboa of the toll fines Industry. Not the good Rocky though, not the champion. The Victorian Government is the Philadelphia-docks strong-arm debt-collecting Rocky Balboa, before he figured out that he was living the wrong life and turned things around.

A toll fine is a private debt between an individual and a private company. Victoria is the only state in Australia that acts as the ultimate enforcer of that fine, bringing the full weight of the law down on a person who has copped a toll fine. This means a fine – which is like any other private debt, such as a water or energy bill – can mean someone spends time in prison.

Toll fines generates government revenue out of thin air. It turns a private debt into a crime, and transfers money owed to private operators into a debt to the Victorian Government, inflated by several thousand per cent of the original toll fine for ‘additional fees’.

In the most up-to-date data, the Victorian Government had outstanding toll warrants of almost $700 million on their books. WestJustice finds Victoria’s toll fine system adds up to $342 to almost every single unpaid toll fee: fees that start off as little as 41 cents. This is an increase of up to 83,400%. Toll fines and infringements are inherently unfair, and likely to lead to decreased respect for the system and less voluntary compliance.

Community Legal Centres tell us the people least likely to pay toll fines on time do have jobs but are still struggling to make ends meet. They battle to pay for food, rent, power bills and petrol. Under our system, they’re punished by having their fine multiplied thousands of times over.

The current toll fines system can be changed to make it fairer to everyday Victorians, including by:

  • removing the threat of criminal proceedings looming over anyone who doesn’t pay a toll fine
  • reconciling debts through civil proceedings: criminalising toll fines clogs the criminal courts
  • making it easier for people to pay fines and educating people about the toll system
  • introducing hardship programs that recognise individual circumstances
  • giving the Tolling Industry Ombudsman powers to regulate the tolling system, including the power to cancel infringement notices
  • capping use of criminal infringements for toll fees and more actively determining when the infringement system can be used to recover toll fines. 

None of this is to say that people shouldn’t have to pay their toll debts; simply that toll debts should not be multiplied thousands of times over, and the criminal justice system should not be used for collecting debts.

Rocky got out of the debt collecting business and became champion of the world. It’s time for the Victorian Government to get out of the toll infringements debt collection business and to champion a best-in-country regulatory framework for toll fines and infringements.