New report finds marginalised children targeted by COVID fines

New report finds marginalised children targeted by COVID fines

Experts call for urgent reform of the NSW fines system to protect children's rights and well-being

A new report prepared by academics at the University of Wollongong (UOW), UNSW Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has found marginalised children were unfairly targeted by COVID fines at the height of the pandemic, highlighting the need for immediate reform of the NSW fines system.

Children and COVID-19 Fines in NSW: Impacts and Lessons for the Future Use of Penalty Notices was commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited (ALS).

The research was undertaken by Professor Julia Quilter and Grace Bowles from the UOW School of Law; Professor Luke McNamara from the UNSW Centre for Criminology, Law and Justice; and Dr Elyse Methven from the Faculty of Law at UTS.

The report’s key findings include:

  • 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 $1000, with some reaching $5000, far surpassing the maximum $1100 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 as a result of the fines, which compounded disadvantage.

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

Professor Quilter said policing children by issuing heavy fines during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted, in extreme form, the problem with NSW’s fines system more generally.

“Kids have no or little capacity to pay fines and saddling them with crippling debts only sets them up for future failure,” Professor Quilter said.

“This is especially troubling given that fines are disproportionately issued by police to vulnerable kids already experiencing socio-economic and other forms of disadvantage. 

“Police need to stop issuing fines to kids and engage in diversionary and creative problem-solving policing.”

The report’s authors, along with RLC, PIAC and ALS, are calling for a fundamental rethink in how children in NSW are treated to avoid saddling them with financial strain, stress, and having them mired in the justice system.

More information

Children and COVID-19 Fines in NSW: Impacts and Lessons for the Future Use of Penalty Notices is published by Redfern Legal Centre, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited. It was launched in Sydney on 21 May 2024.

Visit Redfern Legal Centre to learn more.