Fines Reform Amendment Bill 2017

Debate resumed from 2 November; motion of Mr JENNINGS (Special Minister of State).

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (12:40:38) — I am pleased to rise this afternoon to make some remarks on the Fines Reform Amendment Bill 2017. This is the latest tranche of legislation to restructure the operation of the fines penalty system in Victoria. The fines infringement system is one of the key planks of our justice system in terms of providing sanctions for low-level offending, obviously across a very wide range of low-level offences. In many respects a big part of that mechanism is keeping matters out of the courts and allowing for matters to be dealt with in an administrative manner and in a way which avoids tying up a lot of court time.

We have had a PERIN system in place for many years now, and it has worked quite effectively. One of the challenges though that we have seen in recent years has been the level of outstanding unpaid fines, which has been a problem for successive governments. That not only leads to a very significant amount of forgone revenue from a Treasury perspective, and certainly that was something I saw a fair bit of in government, but it also goes to the issue of the administration of justice. If people are having penalties imposed on them by way of fines and those fines are not being paid, that is a matter that goes to the administration of justice as well as being a cash matter for the budget. There have been a number of initiatives over recent years to try to address that backlog in fines and also to reduce the administrative cost of our fines system. This bill goes partially in that direction as well with the changes it makes to Fines Victoria and the role that Fines Victoria will assume in terms of administering the fine system.

The main area that this bill seeks to operate in is in relation to fines associated with people who are the victims of family violence. The bill creates a new mechanism for a new family violence scheme under which people who are victims of family violence will have the capacity to apply to the director of Fines Victoria for their circumstances as a victim of family violence to be taken into consideration as part of the administration of their fines. The bill requires that a person who is making such an application be able to state that the family violence substantially contributed to the circumstances around their conduct which led to the fine or led to their inability to pay a fine. The director of Fines Victoria will be empowered to consider the application, halt proceedings against a person for outstanding fines and then consider whether those factors come into effect in determining the way in which those fines are dealt with.

This mechanism arises from recommendations 112 and 113 of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, recognising that many people who are the subject of family violence and are obviously in very desperate circumstances end up in a situation where they undertake low-level offending and subsequently have fines imposed upon them for that low-level offending arising from the circumstance of their family violence, or they are in circumstances where by virtue of being a victim of family violence they are unable to acquit their responsibilities for other outstanding fine matters. The royal commission was of the view that the justice system should have regard to circumstances where family violence victims are caught up in the justice system as a consequence of their family violence. This bill seeks to create a mechanism through Fines Victoria so that where family violence is a substantially contributing factor that is taken into account in the imposition and administration of fines.

In that regard the coalition is happy not to oppose this regime. We think it is a reasonable mechanism that that factor be taken into consideration. Obviously it is important that where family violence becomes a consideration in the administration of fines we do not see applications being made purely to avoid the default administration of fines. Applications need to be genuine, and they need to be considered carefully on their merits. The bill seeks to do that in the sense of requiring family violence to have substantially contributed to the circumstances around the conduct of the person leading to their default on fines or the imposition of penalties. We believe it is a reasonable mechanism that it has to be a substantial contributing factor, because the nexus between family violence and the circumstances of the person needs to be strong if they are to take advantage of the family violence scheme that is proposed by this legislation. We believe it is an appropriate element that that nexus be demonstrated and that access to the family violence scheme not be used simply as a way to get around fines.

Likewise the bill is very prescriptive in terms of when an application needs to be made in relation to seeking the use of the family violence system. That application needs to be triggered before certain default activities take place through the fines system. Again we believe it is appropriate that a person who is genuinely experiencing hardship by virtue of family violence makes that known early in the administration of their fines and that this is not something that is thrown up as a last-ditch effort to avoid the otherwise default administration of the fine mechanism. So we believe those are appropriate safeguards for this legislation in introducing a family violence scheme.

I understand that there will be some amendments moved in relation to the causal link between family violence and access to the family violence scheme. To the extent that we have seen those informally, the coalition is concerned that they seek to break the nexus or limit the nexus too much between the occurrence of family violence and the circumstances relating to fines. I think a scheme like this will be acceptable to the Victorian community provided that the Victorian community has confidence that there is a strong link between a victim of family violence and the circumstances of that victim and what occurs through the fines system. If there is not that nexus, the level of community support is likely to be limited. We have seen that in other aspects of changes to the fines system.

Earlier this year Parliament dealt with changes to fines in relation to custodial prisoners. People who were serving time in Victorian prisons through the time served scheme were able to have their fines effectively waived simultaneous with serving their prison sentences. It was not evident to the coalition at that time and is still not evident that that mechanism is something that is acceptable to the Victorian community. An otherwise law-abiding Victorian citizen who is the subject of infringement penalties is required to pay those penalties. The fact that prisoners in custody now have a mechanism where they do not have to pay their penalties purely by virtue of being in custody is something that we do not believe is acceptable to the Victorian community, and it is important in putting in place the family violence scheme that the nexus between a person's exposure to family violence and what occurs through the fines system is strong so that community support for that scheme is maintained.

As I said at the outset, there have been a range of reforms undertaken in relation to fine penalties over recent years, one of which has been the proposed introduction of VIEW — the Victorian infringement enforcement and warrant system — which is seeking to be an IT platform to manage the administration of fines in Victoria. It has become evident through the introduction and timing of this bill as well as material that has come to the Parliament through the work of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee that, once again with the VIEW system being administered through the Department of Justice and Regulation, we see an IT platform which seemingly is behind schedule in its rollout and implementation.

When you look at the history of IT projects run by the Victorian government it is not a strong track record, and it is regrettable that it seems the VIEW system —

Ms Crozier — Victorian Labor governments.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS — By Labor governments, Ms Crozier. We had the combined Auditor-General's and Ombudsman's report in 2011, I think it was, which highlighted a sample of a dozen projects, all of which were at least 50 per cent over budget and well behind schedule. That record seems to be continuing with the rollout of the VIEW project for administration of fines in this state. I note that as a passing reference to what is happening with the administration of fines. It is one area where we do have concerns, as we do have concerns with the time served scheme available for custodial prisoners, but in respect of the bill before the house this afternoon we believe that the family violence scheme is a reasonable mechanism. Its implementation by the director of Fines Victoria will have to be carefully considered. It will only have community support if its implementation is genuine and the way in which relief under this mechanism is made available to victims of family violence is genuine and the cases are genuine.

We believe that the framework in the bill is reasonable for that, but it will come down to the way in which the director of Fines Victoria seeks to implement that, and presumably we may see also some judicial decisions with respect to the application of this bill in due course, which will frame the way in which the director of Fines Victoria implements this framework. At this point in time the coalition parties are happy not to oppose this mechanism. We believe that the threshold that has been established by the bill is reasonable, and on that basis we will not support an amendment to that, but we look forward to seeing how this mechanism actually works in implementation.

My expectations with respect to an amendment have been confirmed with respect to changing that threshold in relation to the substantial contribution required between the occurrence of family violence and the circumstances relating to fines. My understanding is that the intention is to remove the 'substantially' component, so it just makes it a contributing factor between family violence and the administrational circumstances relating to fines. Our concern is that that is not a strong enough nexus for this scheme to be supported in the community, so we would seek to maintain the nexus that the relationship between the occurrence of family violence and the circumstance with fines is a substantial contribution rather than simply just a contribution. With those words the coalition parties will not oppose this bill, and I look forward to exploring that amendment in the committee in due course.
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