Briefing paper

Fines are used extensively in all Australian jurisdictions to address low-level law breaking. If ignored, fines automatically escalate into increased penalties and additional enforcement proceedings. Based on the Legal Australia-Wide (LAW) Survey, 2.7 per cent of the Australian population experience problems with fines in a 12-month period. Other literature indicates that fines can be problematic for disadvantaged groups because they lack financial capacity to pay them.

This paper adds to the literature by using population-level data from the LAW Survey to examine whether the prevalence of problems with fines is higher for disadvantaged groups than others. It also investigates whether people’s responses to fines problems, and the outcomes they achieve for these problems, varies by disadvantage.

The findings reveal that fines disproportionately affect disadvantaged people. Most of the disadvantaged groups examined had elevated experience of fines problems, including substantial fines problems. These groups included Indigenous people, single parents, people in disadvantaged housing, people on government benefits, people with a disability and unemployed people. Furthermore, the adverse consequences resulting from fines problems increased as level of disadvantage increased. Disadvantaged people were also less likely to have the financial and legal capability to handle their fines problems satisfactorily. They were less likely to take any type of action, and, consequently, were less likely to finalise these problems. Notably, inaction in response to fines problems was linked to less favourable outcomes. These findings suggest a vicious cycle of fines, disadvantage and debt whereby heightened vulnerability to fines, inaction, further penalty and adverse consequences can compound disadvantage.

However, the findings also suggest that when disadvantaged people do get appropriate assistance for their fines problems, they achieve outcomes on par with others. In particular, use of not-for-profit legal services was the strategy most likely to produce favourable outcomes.

The more common experience and greater impact of fines problems on disadvantaged people indicates the utility of a client-centred approach to fines problems that is suited to the needs and capability of the individual, and points to the potential benefits of both systemic and legal service reforms. Ideally, to minimise detrimental consequences, disadvantaged people would be connected with appropriate assistance or would be otherwise diverted from the mainstream fines enforcement system as early as possible.

Publication Details
Justice Issues no.27