Calls for immediate reform of the NSW fines system as a new report reveals that a heavy-handed approach to policing public health orders resulted in 3,628 children in NSW receiving COVID fines. 

The report, ‘Children and COVID-19 Fines in NSW: Impacts and Lessons for the Future Use of Penalty Notices’, was co-authored by Dr Julia Quilter and Grace Bowles (University of Wollongong), Professor Luke McNamara (UNSW Law & Justice), and Dr Elyse Methven (University of Technology Sydney). 

Dr Quilter says policing kids by issuing heavy fines during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted problems with the fines system in general.

'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," says Dr Quilter. 

The report found:

  • 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 their disadvantage. 

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

Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) commissioned the report and are now calling for reform. They say the findings highlight 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, says their work with people 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," says Ms Pandolfini.

RLC is calling 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, says fines are an extension of the way Aboriginal children are criminalised and punished in NSW. 

'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. It’s time to reform the archaic and unjust fines system,' says Ms Warner.

Jonathon Hunyor, CEO of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, agrees that an urgent rethink of the fines system in NSW is needed. He says creating massive debts for children and families simply amplifies disadvantage and builds distrust in the system.

Redfern Legal Centre media