“It’s bureaucracy gone crazy,” says Korumburra Magistrate
THE system of fines and legal costs surrounding penalty notices, principally for unpaid CityLink or Eastlink tolls, is clogging the courts, costing us the taxpayer millions and crushing thousands of Victorians, many of them from the most disadvantaged groups within the community.
Drug abuse or mental health conditions are often implicated.
Hardly a day goes by, at the Korumburra Magistrates’ Court, that there aren’t a number of people seeking relief from the resulting financial distress.
Last Thursday was no different.
Two people, making applications to the court for help, one facing fines and on-costs of $32,000 and the other of $11,500, are typical of those caught by the downward debt spiral which results.
However before their applications could go ahead last Thursday, the legal representative for the pair, Meaghan Crouch of David Luscombe and Associates, asked for an adjournment while psychiatrists’ reports and legal aid could be sought to support their applications.
Failure to pay Citylink or Eastlink tolls, often starting out at as little as $9 per trip for the original toll, were a feature of both applications.
Once Civic Compliance Victoria takes over recovering these outstanding amounts, the small toll fees escalate into charges of $300-plus and the situation starts to get out of hand.
There were several other applications for relief listed last week.
Recently there was an application from someone with more than $100,000 in associated fines and legal costs. Again toll warrants were a feature.
Quite apart from what it is costing the state in Justice Department processing expenses alone, which can include enforcement of warrants by Sheriff’s Office representatives at the homes of those involved, and even the seizure of their property; it is draining scarce Legal Aid reserves and State funds for the cost of medical reports required by the courts.
Ultimately the taxpayer forks out for these.
Ms Crouch said it could cost $600 for a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s report and, if approved, Legal Aid funding amounted to $800.
It’s an impost which is being repeated thousands of times-a-week across the state’s courts.
Magistrate wiped fines
The situation became farcical in the Korumburra Magistrates’ Court last week, prompting Magistrate Simon Garnett to declare that the system was out of control.
Sherrif’s Office figures obtained by Fairfax Media last year revealed that outstanding toll warrants amounted to almost $687 million in 2014/15, a 15 per cent increase on the previous year.
It has exploded by 80 per cent since 2012 and is estimated to have exceeded $800 million in 2015/16.
What prompted the exasperated outburst by Mr Garnett was the application being made to the courts by Matthew Matthews of Phillip Island.
According to Mr Matthew’s legal representative, Louis R Marcou, his client knew nothing about the escalating cost of his partner’s toll fines until the Post Office realised that notices being incorrectly sent to ‘Ocean Road’ should have been going to ‘Ocean Reach’, an address at Cape Woolamai.
By then, according to Mr Marcou, eight unpaid Eastlink tolls, had become costs of $313.90, $317.90, $258 etc for a total of $2463.40.
He said his client had tried to sort out the mess but to no avail.
“Mr Matthews was not the driver of the car and he filed the forms to that effect. His partner was the driver and she filed an affidavit to say it was her and that the infringement notices were sent to the wrong address.”
Mr Marcou explained to the court that a serious family issue had prompted the man’s partner to use Eastlink without an eTag.
“She’s willing to plead guilty, she used the road but she never intended to defraud the company. These people didn’t send the notices to the right address.
“She expected to get a cost, say $20 for each trip but not $313 a pop,” Mr Marcou said.
“It’s up to you, your honour to decide what to do,” Mr Marcou said, noting that the family had offered to pay $1000.
“It’s bureaucracy gone crazy this toll system,” Magistrate Garnett said.
“You’ve tried all sorts of things to sort it out but to no avail.
“I presume it would have cost money for legal representation?” he asked.
Mr Marcou agreed that it would.
Mr Garnett granted the application to appeal against the revocation refusal and dismissed all tolls fees and the fines associated with them.
Afterwards, when leaving court, Mr Matthews said he was greatly relieved by the decision but regretted that it needed a court appearance to sort it out.
“I guess I’ll be mowing Louis’ lawns for a fair while to pay for it,” he said in reference to fellow Islander, his lawyer, Mr Marcou.
‘We’re changing it’, says Attorney-General
THE State Government has acknowledged the problems in the fines enforcement system and claims to be doing something about it.
Seeing a reduction in the number of people forced into the court system will be one measure of its success in tackling the problem.
Here’s what Attorney-General Martin Pakula had to say in answer to questions from the Sentinel-Times:
“The Andrews Labor Government is overhauling the state’s infringement system to make it easier and simpler for Victorians to manage their fines.
“The Fines Reform Act includes a number of measures which will make the system fairer and more equitable for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people, such as those with a mental health disorder or intellectual disability, or people experiencing homelessness or drug addiction.
“These measures include payment plans or community service where an eligible person is in acute financial hardship and cannot pay off their debt.
“We’re also working to reduce the pressure on the court system with a call centre to remind people to deal with their unpaid fines before things escalate,” Mr Pakula said.
The Fines Reform Act 2014, to be rolled out later this year, establishes a new fines model to make it easier and simpler for people to manage their fines.
Under the Act, responsibility for the enforcement of infringement and court fines will shift to the Director of a new administrative body – Fines Victoria.
Fines Victoria will provide a one-stop-shop point of contact for the public to pay or deal with their unpaid fines. It will also provide an opportunity for people to consolidate their fines into one payment arrangement.
This legislation also includes the Work and Development Permit scheme which will provide vulnerable people with more options to address their fine debt.
The scheme will be available to people who are experiencing acute financial hardship, a mental health disorder or intellectual disability, addiction to drugs or alcohol, or homelessness. It will allow eligible people to reduce their fine debt by undertaking options, including volunteer work; educational, vocational and life skills courses; medical and mental health treatment; counselling and mentoring.
The WDP scheme will be an important option to assist vulnerable people to address their fine debt while also undertaking activities and engaging with services that may help to address their underlying circumstances.
In July 2016, the Department of Justice and Regulation launched a new state-wide call centre initiative aimed at helping people manage and pay their fines early to avoid added fees and penalties.
The call centre works by contacting people who have passed the first due date on their infringement notice as a reminder, helping thousands of Victorians to manage their fines early.
As of February 2017, the call centre had contacted more than 36,000 people and assisted almost 22,000 matters into payment plans valued at $4.2 million.