OPINION: Balancing act

By: Sarah Marinovic


Now, more than ever, inconsistencies in State laws could mean big fines due to guilt by interpretation

OPINION: Balancing act
Safe distance!

 

In the past few months we’ve seen every State pass new laws in response to COVID-19. The extent of the restrictions on people’s lives and how quickly they’ve been enacted is unprecedented.

But the speed at which these laws needed to be made means they’re not perfect. I don’t say that to be critical of the lawmakers. This is a difficult situation for everyone. Most people are trying to do their best under a lot of pressure – this includes the authorities.

But the reality is, the laws aren’t as clear as they would have been had there been time to review them and seek the input that usually occurs.

The public has a lot of questions about what’s actually allowed or not. And that’s completely understandable. The way the laws have been written leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Even lawyers are having trouble working out with certainty where the boundaries fall. That’s a concerning situation when the punishment for breaching them is large on the spot fines and jail time if the case goes through court.

Interstate drivers are in an even harder position. Not only do they need to know the restrictions in their home State, they need to know the rules in every jurisdiction they pass through. It’s not easy! 

To make things more difficult, even where the rules seem similar the police in different States are interpreting them differently. 

Then to top it all off the laws are being changed regularly when the restrictions need tightening or relaxing. By the time this article goes to print, the laws will likely have changed again. 

There’s a real risk that people are going to find themselves unknowingly breaching the law. Alternatively, given the differing interpretations among police, it’s also likely that people will be wrongly accused of breaking the law.

Staying on the right side

So how can the transport industry reduce their chances of receiving a fine? 

The most important thing to do is keep up to date on the rules. Before you begin any trip across borders you should check the current restrictions and make sure nothing has changed. The government websites have up to date information about the laws. I have included a list at the bottom of this article with the website for each State. 

The other important thing to do is stop and think each time you go out into public. Think carefully about whether your outing falls into one of the permitted categories. If you are questioned by police, while you don’t usually have to answer questions other than your name and address, sometimes being able to politely explain what you’re doing is often the difference between receiving a fine or not. 

Finally, given the lack of clarity, if in doubt seek advice. You can ask your local police or many lawyers are happy to provide guidance. 

While these steps aren’t failsafe, they will put you in the best position to avoid a fine.

Disputing unfair fines

If you do receive a fine you can contest it.

With all the confusion and changing laws there are bound to be people who are fined without realising they were doing anything wrong. Given the big fines involved, it’s worth looking into whether you have grounds to have the fine waived if you think it was unfair. 

There are a few options for review:

* Internal Review – in most States you can apply to have your fine reviewed by the issuing body. The instructions are usually included on the penalty notice. Internal review is usually the most straightforward way to have your fine reviewed. If the authority accepts that the ticket was incorrectly issued, they will withdraw it. This has already occurred with several fines incorrectly issued when Victorian police misinterpreted the COVID-19 restrictions.

* Court elect – you can choose for your fine to be referred to court. The magistrate can dismiss the charge entirely if they accept that you didn’t break the law. Alternatively, if you accept that you broke the law they can often reduce the fine if you have a good justification. It’s a good idea to seek legal advice before taking your case to court as there are risks involved. These include getting a criminal conviction or a harsher penalty.

* Time to pay – if your only concern is that you can’t pay the fine immediately, then you could consider asking for a payment plan. Often the revenue department will let you pay of your fine over time. You can apply for this by calling the contact number on the infringement notice. Before going into a payment plan check whether the authority will add an additional fee to the fine for this. 

Most importantly, we at Ainsley Law hope that you and your families are safe and healthy during this time. 

Government websites for current covid-19 laws

Queensland – www.covid19.qld.gov.au/government-actions

NSW – www.nsw.gov.au/covid-19/what-you-can-and-cant-do-under-rules

Victoria – www.vic.gov.au/victorias-response-coronavirus

Australian Capital Territory – www.covid19.act.gov.au

Tasmania – coronavirus.tas.gov.au/families-community/gatherings

Northern Territory – coronavirus.nt.gov.au/community-advice/gatherings

South Australia – www.covid-19.sa.gov.au/restrictions-and-responsibilities

Western Australia – www.wa.gov.au/government/document-collections/covid-19-coronavirus-state-of-emergency-declarations

 

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