Page 610 - Week 02 - Thursday, 24 March 2022

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I have faith that we can strike that balance. It is not just about the cases that do end up in court. There is the stress of court enforcement hanging over one’s head as a possibility, or the actual, genuine harm caused by the financial stress of the fine and the compounding late fees. People can end up thousands of dollars in debt because they are anxious and just never respond. They are never taken to court, but it still weighs heavily upon them. Fines can also lead to a negative cycle, with long-term consequences for the whole family. I question whether fines for a minor transgression should be aggressively pursued, especially when the pursuit can end in financial ruin, criminal records and devastation.

There are currently two programs that assist low-income Canberrans to pay their traffic and parking fines. These programs are payment in instalments or the Work or Development Program. I must acknowledge former Greens MLA Amanda Bresnan for introducing the legislation for both of these options during the Seventh Assembly. This was followed up by her successor, Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur, with a motion in 2020. These schemes are a good start, but they also have their limitations. The first allows people to pay in instalments. But for those who are already financially unable to keep up, who cannot make ends meet, how are they ever meant to be able to catch up?

The second, the Work or Development Program, allows people to work off a fine by making an alternative contribution to the community and getting help with the problems in their life that may have led to that initial fine. For example, they can work at not-for-profits, attend workshops or participate in residential drug and alcohol programs. I applaud this initiative but note that it is only available on request by the offender and assumes they have the luxury of time in which to undertake the activity. The working poor may well not have the time to do this.

Importantly, possibly due to workload and staffing issues during COVID-19, wait times have blown out for accessing these schemes, with consequential stress and impacts on vulnerable Canberrans. We have heard that wait times now often exceed three months. It is during this time that people are unsure whether their fines have been put on hold, and they are receiving reminder notices and licence suspension notices. They are also missing out on opportunities to participate in the alternative activities provided for by this scheme.

This has left people who are unable to pay at an increased risk of losing their licence, which is often necessary for paid work and other essential activities like health care, as well as attracting further fees for non-payment. Imagine if the scheme could operate as an automatic entitlement, rather than a burdensome bureaucratic decision with a lot of stress and terrible consequences for people when it is not processed in a timely way.

Currently, people who are struggling financially have to work hard to get access to the options that are in place to help them. This mindset needs to shift to one where people are helped to access their entitlements as a step towards getting back on their feet financially.

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