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Research Report: Fine but not fair: fines and disadvantage, Justice issues paper 3
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Fine but not fair: fines and disadvantage, Justice issues paper 3  ( 2008 )  Cite this report

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Disadvantage and vulnerability to being fined

While penalty notices are issued to people from all walks of life for many different misdemeanours, findings from the A2JLN research program suggests that people who are socially or economically disadvantaged are more vulnerable to attracting fines and less likely to have the means and capacity to pay them. For instance, homeless people who live or sleep in public places, such as in parks or on trains, were reported to be particularly vulnerable to being fined for offences such as drinking in public places and public transport offences.15

…And they will quite frequently, particularly if they were perhaps intoxicated at the time and it was something so minor, such as having feet on the seat or telling a Transit Officer to rack off and picking up a $400 a piece for that, they quite easily forget it. Until they get picked up on $1200 worth of fines that are outstanding. All of a sudden they are in court …. So, they don't deal with them, they don't remember having them and then they lose the paperwork which is another thing. As often as IDs get lost, other related paperwork gets lost so we have people call us saying 'I have to be in court and I have no idea when, what date, who…' and sometimes even 'what for'.
— Homelessness worker, Taking justice into custody16

Young people are also particularly vulnerable to attracting fines. Figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that, despite 14–24 year olds only making up approximately 14 per cent of the NSW population, of the 463 000 infringement notices issued in 2002, 35 per cent were issued to 14–24 year olds.17 Similarly, during the pilot of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Penalty Notices Offences) Act 2002 (NSW), 45 per cent of criminal infringement notices (CIN) were issued to 18–24 year olds.18 Peak advocacy bodies for young people report that their clients are vulnerable to receiving fines because they may not earn or receive enough money to cover basic needs such as food and rent as well as transport costs, but still need to catch public transport to meet daily obligations, such as work, training or job interviews.19

Data from the A2JLN research program also suggest that people with a mental illness are susceptible to receiving fines. Examples were given of people with a mental illness being arrested and fined for behaviour related to their illness that attracted the attention of police or other authorised officers. For instance, recounting her experiences, a young woman with a mental illness said:

One of them (a fine) was issued when I was mentally unstable at the time, and I ran across the train tracks without using the train bridge, so they issued me a fine…Well after the first fine when I ran across the train tracks, I got another one, for smoking on the platform.
— Homeless young woman, No home, no justice?20

A service provider interviewed in On the edge of justice gave an example of a mentally ill client who had cut up all identification in a state of paranoia and was then fined for not having a concession card on a bus. In another reported incident, a person was fined for drunk and disorderly conduct after having an epileptic seizure.21

In Taking justice into custody, a Foundation report on the legal needs of prisoners, the vast majority of prisoners interviewed reported having outstanding fines. One inmate estimated his fine debt was in the order of $49 000. More common amounts ranged from $175 to $15 000. Sources of these fines included traffic and transport fines, as well as court-imposed fines from current and past offences. Many of the fines were accrued in the often chaotic period of people's lives before they went to prison.22


Clarke, S, Forell, S & McCarron, E 2008, Fine but not fair: fines and disadvantage, Justice issues paper 3, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney