Two prominent legal entities, the Redfern Legal Centre and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), have lodged a complaint against the New South Wales (NSW) Police with the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) over the force's handling of fines during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The complaint, submitted last week, urges the watchdog to scrutinise the conduct of the police during the pandemic, specifically whether it constituted serious maladministration or misconduct, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
The legal bodies have called into question the justice and reasonableness of the police actions, particularly in issuing almost 50,000 fines within a three-month span following a directive by then-commissioner Mick Fuller.
Elisabeth, a pseudonym, is among those fined during this period. In August 2021, while walking past a café with a friend, she greeted another friend seated in the café's outside area. The encounter led to all three individuals being slapped with a $1,000 fine for non-compliance with public health orders.
Despite the fines later being declared invalid, only Elisabeth's friends received a refund as she had elected to dispute the penalty in court. As a single mother and pandemic-induced job loss victim, Elisabeth feels trapped by the system, with her case set for hearing in January 2024.
Redfern Legal Centre’s senior police accountability solicitor, Samantha Lee, criticised the treatment of those who chose to contest the fines in court, referring to it as a penalty for seeking justice.
During the pandemic, from March 2020 to September 2022, over 62,000 COVID-related fines were dispensed in NSW, with 80% of those given out in the July-September 2021 period.
This surge followed Fuller's leaked internal video statement encouraging officers to prioritise issuing fines to ensure public compliance with health orders.
The Redfern Legal Centre succeeded in a test case last year that rendered 50% of all pandemic-related fines invalid, though some of these continue to be disputed in court.
Camilla Pandolfini, Redfern Legal Centre’s CEO, criticised the NSW Police for their excessive reliance on fines, which often penalised those not breaching public health rules.
Jonathon Hunyor, PIAC’s CEO, expressed concerns about the potentially unlawful and damaging approach adopted by the police during a challenging period for communities.