Council fines frenzy

NOWHERE in the Hunter will you see the quest for fines revenue as virulent as it is in Newcastle City Council’s hunting grounds. Each day the council sends out a stream of fine-writing employees to raise revenue, and it has the gall to state that its describing these revenue raisers as compliance officers will inspire respect from the prey.

A measure of the council’s commitment to fining Novocastrians and visitors is that compliance officers are writing more than $1000 in parking fines every hour in the CBD. It’s a good reason to shop elsewhere. As reported in this paper early this year, lord mayor John Tate believes the approach is too authoritarian, that compliance should be more encouragement and less penalising, but his concerns are not reflected in the revenue.

A week ago a Hamilton South woman wrote in this paper of how a Newcastle parking inspector, aka a compliance officer, told her as he asked if the car in the No Standing zone was hers that he always liked to check the nearby shops to see if an offending car’s owner was around and thus to spare him or her a hefty fine. This parking inspector deserved recognition, she wrote, and I’ll bet he got it at the council that day!

With, it seems, that exception, Newcastle’s amassing of millions of dollars in fines revenue – $2.4million from parking fines alone in the most recent year – often puts the money first and the individual and fairness second, as you’ve seen in this paper often enough. The greed for fines revenue is so grubby that it is difficult to see the council’s penalty-imposing as the arm of our justice system it is.

Novocastrians and frequent visitors to the city could be excused for believing the NSW Law Reform Commission had Newcastle council in mind when it reported last month that the system of fines lacked fairness. A person in NSW, the commission said, was far more likely to have contact with the penalty notice system than with any other part of the justice system and so public confidence in the issuing of fines was a significant issue. ‘‘In particular there should be awareness and confidence that the system is focused on fairness and justice, not revenue raising.’’

Could the council chiefs who assure us that it’s all about compliance maintain a straight face in delivering that line, that their fines frenzy is focused on fairness and justice, not revenue raising? Probably.

The commission noted, too, suggestions that offences had been created and fine levels set for the purpose of revenue raising. And it recommends more cautioning and less fining, noting that the ease with which a fine could be issued may ‘‘fuel a tendency for notices to be issued when they should not be, or when a warning or caution may be more appropriate’’.

It urges the state government to create a Penalty Notice Oversight Agency to ensure consistency and fairness, and it wants a better, easier procedure to reviewing fines that might have been wrongly issued. The guilt or innocence of the penalised person was rarely tested, the commission notes, because almost everyone paid a fine rather than take the matter to court, and who hasn’t been dissuaded from challenging a fine by the impracticality of going to court! ‘‘The penalty notice system does not have the transparency normally associated with justice systems in democratic societies,’’ the commission writes, and among the reasons are the wide range of fines-issuing agencies and officers and the fact that these are so rarely tested in court.

A particular problem raised by the commission is that fines cannot be tailored to the circumstances, so that a fine may have vastly different impacts and exacerbate the marginalisation of vulnerable people. It referred, too, to the slippery slope that is an unpaid fine leading to a licence suspension leading to criminal charges leading to jail. When a council sends out record numbers of compliance officers to raise revenue, when even security guards can be engaged to issue fines, we’re all on a slippery slope.

Has the fines frenzy of many councils gone too far? Are we now more prey than ratepayers?

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