This report concerns a complaint made by the Western Community Legal Centre, known as WEstjustice, about Maribyrnong City Council’s unfair internal review processes when dealing with fines. The five case studies featured concern people, most of them elderly, who had valid disability parking permits at the time they parked in a disability parking space. They each made a simple mistake in failing to display the permit properly in their vehicle, either because they had forgotten it, it had been misplaced, they had picked up an expired permit instead, or it had fallen down from the dashboard.
A fine of around $150 is a lot of money for the people featured in this report.
When these people showed the council their valid permits, it was not unreasonable for them to expect the fines to be withdrawn. As we found out during our investigation, comparable councils would most likely have cancelled the infringements once they saw the valid permits, particularly when it was a first offence.
Instead, this council stuck to a narrow definition of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that justify cancelling an infringement. In response to the case of the 80-year-old whose wife was suffering from cancer, the council did not agree that a person being ‘stressed’ constituted exceptional circumstances. Helpfully, the new agency dealing with such matters, Fines Victoria, told us: ‘… it would be reasonable to accept that the applicant was stressed due to his wife’s medical diagnosis and could, as a result, forget to display the permit’.
The council told us they take this strict approach because permits may be misused, and they are seeking to protect parking spots for people with disabilities. But there is no evidence that any of these cases is dodgy, and in their zeal, the council seems to have forgotten they are harming the very people they claim to protect.
I am tabling this report as a reminder to public servants that in their daily interactions with people, they are dealing with human beings who, being human, make mistakes. Of course they must be alert to potential abuses against the public purse, and some mistakes, especially repeated ones, deserve penalties. But a little compassion is needed when you are dealing with an 80-year-old whose wife is dying of cancer or a pensioner whose husband has Parkinson’s disease. While I am pleased the council has now reimbursed one individual, it is disappointing that it has, so far, refused to make modest ex gratia payments to the other four.
Fair systems of public administration need thoughtful exercise of discretion, not blanket rules, rigidly applied. I thank WEstjustice, Victoria Legal Aid and other community legal centres for raising this important issue, and hope that it triggers a shift in the thinking of those who enforce rules. While the amounts of money in this report may appear small, the issue is a big one, for public servants and the public alike.