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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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The impact of fines on disadvantaged people

The accumulation of unpaid fines and subsequent debt can have a significant impact on the lives of socially and economically disadvantaged people, and can contribute to and worsen their disadvantage in a number of ways.

Accumulated fine-related debt

Across the A2JLN studies, examples were provided of disadvantaged people having outstanding fines ranging from relatively small amounts to several thousand dollars. In Taking justice into custody one prisoner reported owing nearly $50 000 in unpaid fines. When people have come through a period of instability in their lives, for example involving alcohol addiction, drug addiction or mental illness, accumulated fine-related debt can remain an obstacle to rebuilding their lives and overcoming disadvantage. Similarly, debt, including fine-related debt can hinder ex-prisoners from moving forward with their lives after their release from prison. When the Fines Act (NSW) was introduced in 1996, prisoners were no longer able to 'cut-out' their fines while serving time for other offences. While this change was to stop people from going to jail for fines, one consequence is that prisoners can leave jail still owing considerable amounts of money for unpaid fines. Hence Taking justice into custody noted the high levels of fine-related debt amongst prisoners in this study.60 Other literature has also identified the impact that such debt can have on a prisoner once released. For example, in 1999 the Queensland Prisoners' Legal Service undertook research on the extent of indebtedness in the prison population and its effects on the families of prisoners and the wider community.61 The authors reported that 49 per cent of the respondents to the prisoner questionnaire indicated that they had committed an offence to repay a debt.62 Furthermore, in a study of ex-prisoners, Baldry et al. (2003) found that 51 per cent of the ex-prisoners she interviewed had a debt of some sort. Debt was identified as a factor which contributed to their likelihood of returning to prison.63

Fines also place a financial burden on disadvantaged people that in some circumstances they are simply unable to deal with. Participants and stakeholders interviewed for No home, no justice? suggested that having outstanding fines may contribute to people moving states or living a transient, potentially homeless, lifestyle to avoid being punished for unpaid fines:

I got a list like this [arms stretched wide], about $12 000 in fines at the moment in WA. Here, I'm unknown and that's the way I want to stay — out of trouble.
— Homeless man with mental health issues, No home, no justice? 64

Licence suspension

As noted previously, if an enforcement order is not paid within 28 days, the SDRO can direct the RTA to suspend a person's driver licence, cancel car registration or prevent that person from 'conducting business with the RTA (including applying for a licence). This is the case for both traffic and non-traffic offences and remains in force until the fines are either paid in full, or six consecutive payments have been made under a 'time to pay order'. There are limited circumstances in which licence restrictions will be raised earlier, but again these depend upon the applicant being able to prove certain circumstances in writing and provide supporting documentation.65

The suspension of a driver licence can have a significant impact on people who need a licence for employment, job interviews or while caring for children, and on homeless people who use their cars for accommodation. Homeless people and people living in regional or rural areas where there is poor public transport infrastructure are particularly disadvantaged if their licence is suspended.66 Loss of licence can mean that people are less able to access services and participate in the community, contributing to the alienation and isolation these people may already be experiencing.

If people drive without a licence they face the risk of being fined and charged with an offence. Being charged for driving without a licence may escalate into more serious consequences:

…A little bit down the track the driving licence gets suspended and … and then they still can't pay it but they just drive anyway. [He] inevitably gets picked up for driving while suspended. He'd cop another fine for that and then you know again you're disqualified … we certainly get clients where jail suddenly becomes a prospect very quickly because they just keep driving and often for rational reasons that they can't pay.
— Homelessness worker, No home, no justice? 67

Taking justice into custody noted that license suspension as a result of outstanding fines was an issue for a number of people recently released from prison. As well as contributing to the overall levels of debt described above, this added to the challenges faced in gaining employment and generally re-establishing life after custody. Some inmates were also reported to have not been aware that their licence had been suspended while they were in prison and were at risk of driving without a licence after release, being charged and/or breaching their parole.68


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