Calls for law reform to ease burden of unpaid fines for Melbourne’s disadvantaged drivers

New data shows unpaid toll fines in Melbourne are leading to millions of dollars in late penalties, with legal groups warning planned reforms do not go far enough to protect the vulnerable Victorians.

Key points:

  •  Community legal centres are calling for a more forgiving fines system for vulnerable Victorians
  • Thousands of fines given to motorists on Melbourne’s toll roads in 2020-21 were not paid on time
  • Road operator Transurban has asked for more freedom to withdraw fines

Laws due to be debated in parliament on Thursday will empower tolling operators to request Victoria Police withdraw a fine for people experiencing financial hardship.

But community legal centres want toll-road companies such as Transurban to be able to make the change without police approval and argue toll-road operators are better placed to provide support for people experiencing financial difficulties.

Transurban — which owns Citylink — said it wants the ability to request that a fine is withdrawn at any point during the fines process, even if it proceeds to the enforcement or warrant stage.

“Transurban does not want to see customers experiencing hardship have their situation worsen and we do everything we can to support these vulnerable customers manage their toll payments,” a Transurban spokesperson said. 

The tolling giant introduced a scheme in 2019 for people experiencing financial trouble, offering options such as more time to pay, fee waivers and extended payment terms.

Financial hardship a major factor in unpaid fines

Chief executive of community legal centre Westjustice Melissa Hardham said companies such as Transurban were already in a position to help Victorians struggling with fine repayment. 

“They have good mechanisms in place for financial hardship,” Ms Hardham said.

“It should be up to Transurban to determine whether special consideration should be given.”

The government says it has been advised that Victoria Police will generally agree with the majority of fine withdrawal requests, but will retain discretion if community safety is a consideration.

Ms Hardham said the current fines system was a “no-win game” for authorities.

“A lot of the people we represent are people experiencing family violence, significant disadvantage, mental health issues, or all of the above,” Ms Hardham said.

“There’s no likelihood of cost recovery because, ultimately, if people can’t afford to pay the fine, they’re not going to be able to afford all the additional costs associated with that fine, irrespective if it goes through the court process.”

Community legal centres say many clients with unpaid toll fines are already experiencing financial difficulties, making repayment virtually impossible.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

For parts of Melbourne’s west, such as Wyndham, Ms Hardham says the lack of public transport infrastructure leaves residents with no viable travel alternatives.

“It ultimately criminalises poverty because you’ve got people who can’t afford to travel on the toll system, but have to because there’s no other option,” she said.

“They get a job, they’re trying to break this cycle of disadvantage, but they can’t do that effectively because they can’t afford to actually travel to get themselves to and from work.”

South-east suburbs flattened by late fine penalties

It’s a situation reflected in Melbourne’s south-east, where Peninsula Community Legal Centre (PCLC) says toll fines are disproportionately affecting low-income areas.

Repeated failure to pay a toll fine results in increased late fees and eventually the possibility of an infringement notice from Victoria Police, which carries a $182 fine per each day of travel.

Fines data obtained by the legal centre under Freedom of Information showed the majority of toll fines in Melbourne’s outer-eastern and south-eastern suburbs were not being paid before late penalties were enforced.

Over the 2020-2021 financial year, Frankston residents received 6,568 toll fines for driving on the Eastlink, totalling more than $1 million.

Of them, 4,585 weren’t paid on time, adding an extra $402,737 in penalties alone.

Cranbourne residents fared even worse, receiving 8,821 fines during the year, with 5,851 of them not paid in time, totalling $441,429 in penalties.

Under the current fines system, people who have infringed have 28 days from the issuing of a penalty reminder notice to pay before incurring an additional fee.

Thousands of residents in Melbourne’s south-east travelling on the Eastlink did not pay fines on time in the 2020-21 financial year.(ABC News: Giulio Saggin)

“It’s not uncommon that clients seeking our assistance have, on average, around $12,000 in fines,” PCLC chief executive Jackie Galloway said.

“The overwhelming, vast majority are already in financial hardship.”

A report by the PCLC last year found that, of its clients with unpaid fines, 70 per cent were experiencing financial disadvantage, and 60 per cent had a disability or mental health issue.

“You can have a CEO of an organisation, and you can have someone who’s currently homeless, and they’re incurring the same fine,” Ms Galloway said.

“There are always circumstances. And, in those circumstances, there needs to be a process to protect our more-vulnerable members of the community.”

On Thursday, the Greens will propose an amendment to the upper house for fines and infringements to be cut by up to 80 per cent for Victorians receiving Commonwealth benefits.

“It’s always been unfair that flat-rate fines hit the poorest people the hardest,” Brunswick MP Tim Read said.

“It’s not fair that someone driving an old Commodore has to pay the same fine as a Porsche.”

The government says the Greens’ concessional fines scheme does not take into consideration the complexities of acquiring data from the federal and state governments, nor the impact on local government resources.

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