Dealing with Fines

The Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) in Walgett has witnessed the detrimental impact of fines in their community, leading to cycles of financial hardship, poverty and criminalisation. Fines, issued as civil and criminal penalties, can result in secondary criminalisation when people are unable to pay what often amounts to thousands of dollars for people on low incomes, leading to further interactions with police. During the COVID pandemic, the over-policing in Walgett resulted in the highest rate of public health order fines in NSW, disproportionally affecting Aboriginal community members. Many Walgett community members were fined for breaching public health orders without being provided with relevant information or appropriate flexibility applied elsewhere. DEG had to act quickly to try to limit the damage from this new burden on their already disadvantaged community and made a statement in May 2022 to bring attention to this work.

As a response, DEG designed and established a Dealing with Fines project with support from Yuwaya Ngarra-li (YN) in 2022 and specialist advice from the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT. The Dealing with Fines project aims to provide access to justice for the Walgett Aboriginal Community, reducing criminalisation and improving diversion from the criminal justice system. It involves:

  • Early support provided to clients to access quality legal advice about what options are available to them to deal with their fine debt
  • Flexible support provided to clients to prevent further criminalisation (for example, putting holds on enforcement action by NSW State Revenue)
  • Ongoing outreach and assistance to gether documents and evidence for legal advice and action to appeal or prepare write-off applications for fines
  • Ongoing support provided to clients to link with and built relationships with community-controlled health and social services as part of dealing with fines under a Work and Development Order (WDO).

The WDO scheme is jointly run by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), Office of State Revenue (OSR), and Legal Aid NSW. The WDO scheme enables eligible people who are experiencing significant hardship to reduce their fine debt through voluntary participation in unpaid work, courses, treatment, programs and other activities. The WDO initiative has been highly effective for various groups of people in NSW. However, its potential to make an impact in communities such as Walgett in an ongoing and sustained way has been limited until now. While non-government and government organisations have been registered sponsors, the key supports to make the scheme accessible and meaningful have not been prioritised or resourced. Yuwaya Ngarra-li identified that an effective WDO scheme in Walgett would need to be designed to be client-centred and community-led and -controlled.

Dharriwaa Elders Group Speaker Clem Dodd being presented with a bubarra (fighting boomerang) made by Dealing with Fines Coordinator Stephen 'Bungee' Dennis in honour of receiving the outstanding lifetime achievement award from the Aboriginal Culture Heritage & Arts Association


The Dealing with Fines team, recruited in 2022, works directly with community members to reduce fine debt, offering support, transport and mentoring to overcome barriers and improve non-justice pathways, wellbeing, education and employment outcomes. The Dealing with Fines team has discovered many people in Walgett avoid dealing with the fine debt they have, or find it too overwhelming to face. Some don't even know they have fines or what to do to seek help. With some clients, the first step is to find out if they have fines. The team can put clients in touch with civil lawyers at the Aboriginal Legal Service who attempt to have the fines withdrawn—in part or whole. If there is still fine debt remaining, the client is advised they can undertake a WDO with DEG, which could involve entering into a care plan with the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service or undertaking cultural and Elders support activities with the Dealing with Fines team.

WDO activities have included mentoring time with Elders, On Country activities, woodwork and hand carving, cleaning Elders' yards, improving DEG's Walgett Walking Tracks, and clean-up of Walgett's waterways and public gathering spots on the river.

The supports provided by the Dealing with Fines team are also preventative, as the team assists community and clients to prevent incurring further fines.

The Dealing with Fines team takes a proactive approach to working in community to overcome barriers in addressing fine debt. This includes outreach to people's homes, other Walgett services, and Walgett Court. The team is also able to provide transport, food, and other social supports, such as informal mentoring and wellbeing checks for clients who are experiencing homelessness, have mental health and primary health concerns, and are experiencing social isolation and interactions with police.

Revenue NSW Data

To understand the level of fine debt in Walgett and the impact of the work of the Dealing with Fines team, Yuwaya Ngarra-li's Research and Evaluation team used Revenue NSW dashboards to obtain and analyse data about fines issued to people in the Walgett postcode area (2832). That analysis showed that the number and value of fines issued has gone up and down over time but was higher in 2021-22 (995 fines issued) than in any of the previous four years, and the number of fines issued increased again to 1,069 in 2022/23. YN found that the total value of fines issued in 2022/23 was $483,577, more than double the already large amount if $230,206 worth of fines issued in 2021/22 in a small community.

Results to date

The Yuwaya Ngarra-li WDO program is helping people in Walgett to pay off their fines. In its first year of operation:

  • 94 people in Walgett have been supported to have their fines written off or to participate in WDO activities to clear their fines, amounting to $178,112.

This support has been directly enabled through ongoing, collaborative relationships with the Aboriginal Legal Service Fines Clinic team, Legal Aid NSW and Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service and has, in turn, contributed to an expansion of the ALS Fines Clinic state-wide.

Sustained advocacy by DEG and Yuwaya Ngarra-li and analysis of fines and policing data has helped draw attention to the ways that fine debt can lock people out of employment and education and increase contact with the criminal justice system. 

A briefing paper on the development and outcomes of the Dealing with Fines project was published in September 2023. It outlines lessons for systemic advocacy and reform, lessons for ACCOs around running an effective WDO program, and lessons for holistic collaboration that embeds a social and emotional wellbeing approach to dealing with fine debt and improving community outcomes.

Dealing with Fines clients assisting an Elders fishing picnic
Dealing with Fines team Jack Mayes and Stephen Dennis preparing boomerang templates for client arts and crafts