Media release: ‘We cannot fine our way out of the pandemic’


16 September 2021

Over 100 prominent members of the legal, academic and political profession have endorsed an open letter sent to the NSW Premier, calling on the NSW Government to revoke wrongly issued COVID-19 fines.

The letter is a response to concerns among the legal fraternity that COVID-19 fines have been incorrectly issued by police to people undertaking lawful recreation such as sitting in a park, eating outdoors, or sitting alone in their car.

Written by Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW (ALS), Redfern Legal Centre, Community Legal Centres NSW and Public Interest Advocacy Service, the letter calls for greater investment in community education and engagement strategies, and enhanced social and economic measures to support communities already in crisis, and states: ‘we cannot fine our way out of the pandemic’.

Redfern Legal Centre, who instigated the open letter, has assisted with multiple cases where people have been incorrectly issued a $1000 or $3000 fine for an offence under the Public Health Act 2010 for failure to comply with a direction.

Joanna Shulman, CEO of Redfern Legal Centre, said: “It is clearly unjust to leave it up to individuals to appeal these wrongly issued COVID-19 fines. If a government body has made a mistake and not issued fines according to law, then it should rectify that mistake. People are already suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19 – and risk being plunged further into debt because of an error in administering the law.”

Nadine Miles, acting chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, said: “The ALS is assisting people who’ve been fined, or threatened with fines, for things like helping a mentally ill family member get groceries and driving a family member to work in a remote town without public transport.

“Most people want to do the right thing and protect themselves and their communities, but there’s no fine high enough to stop people from seeking out their essential needs if they’re not being provided for. It’s on the NSW Government to provide Aboriginal communities with practical support and clear information on the ever-changing COVID rules.”

Tim Leach, Executive Director, Community Legal Centres NSW, said: “Police targeting people with high fines is not the road out of this pandemic. A public health response grounded in care and wellbeing – not fear and coercion – will strengthen our capacity to respond together. Our communities need to be supported to stay safe, which must include income support and secure housing for all.”

Jonathon Hunyor, CEO of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said: “Punitive approaches to public health orders risk further alienating people – especially those already disadvantaged or marginalised - at a time we need to be working together.”

“Government should focus its efforts on working with the community. Rolling out police and doling out fines won’t build the trust we need for a sustained commitment to public health orders”, said Mr Hunyor.

According to Revenue NSW, 10,232 fines totalling $9,402,500 had been issued for breaches of COVID-19 rules between March 2020 and July this year. Police issued $7,839,500 of these with a total of $8,922,500 in fines issued to individuals. In July this year, 6,815 fines were issued – more than 3 times the total amount issued last financial year.

Download the open letter

The open letter

The Hon. Gladys Berejiklian MP, Premier of NSW
Via online form:

cc: The Hon. Victor Michael Dominello MP, Minister for Customer Service
cc: The Hon. David Elliot MP, Minister for Police

15 September 2021

Dear Premier

A call to address unjust COVID-19 fines

The organisations and individuals that have signed this open letter are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 fines on vulnerable people and communities in NSW.

We call on the Government to reduce the use of policing and fines to ensure compliance with public health orders and invest more heavily in non-punitive approaches.

Many communities in NSW are facing dire financial consequences as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. While fines are a common mechanism for enforcing the law, we are very concerned by the emphasis that has been placed on them as a means for securing compliance with public health orders. These new public health orders have been introduced and amended at a rapid pace. Their legal elements are complex and difficult to understand. This has inevitably resulted in confusion among some members of the public about their rights and responsibilities, with a disproportionate impact on vulnerable community groups.

People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who lack access to accurately translated and culturally appropriate health advice also risk being further disadvantaged.

The excessive use of fines against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities in NSW also has the potential to further entrench disadvantage and exacerbate negative relationships between Aboriginal communities and the police.

We urge the Government to reduce reliance on policing and fines as a predominant strategy for achieving compliance with COVID-19 public health orders.

We instead encourage greater investment in community education and engagement strategies, and enhanced social and economic measures to support communities already in crisis. This will engender greater trust in contract tracers and authorities enforcing public health advice.

We call on the Government to reduce the monetary amounts of COVID-19 fines.

The cost of COVID-19 fines are significant, especially compared to other fines. People experiencing disadvantage already suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19 risk being plunged further into debt. The appeals and financial hardship review processes relating to fines are insufficient to address these concerns – they require an understanding of complex and changing legal rules, knowledge of the right to seek review, prompt action within tight timeframes and language and advocacy skills, which many people just don’t have.

We call on the Government to review and revoke all fines erroneously imposed for lawful outdoor recreation.

We are concerned that many people have been incorrectly issued a $1,000 or $3,000 fine by NSW Police for undertaking lawful outdoor recreation activities including sitting in a park by themselves, or with one other person or household members, eating in an outdoor public space by themselves, or with one other person or household members, and sitting alone in a car.

The Public Health (COVID-19 Additional Restrictions for Delta Outbreak) Order allows for a person (excluding areas of concern) to leave their place of residence to undertake ‘exercise or outdoor recreation’ with one other person or members of the same household within a 5km radius or within their local government area. Up until the 12 August 2021, it also allowed those in areas of concern to undertake recreation within 5km of their place of residence. The NSW Government website states: ‘Recreation includes outdoor leisure activities such as sitting for relaxation, or to eat, drink or read outdoors.’

We cannot fine our way out of the pandemic.

We need alternatives to the widespread use of fines to ensure compliance with the public health orders. This includes better social and economic support for struggling communities, more investment in community engagement and education and the distribution of culturally appropriate materials and messages. Such an approach will be more effective in building support for important public health measures that seek to protect our community.