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WA passes laws to stop vulnerable people from going to jail for unpaid fines

Police in Western Australia will no longer be able to lock up people for unpaid fines after the McGowan government bill passed State Parliament.

user iconTony Zhang 29 June 2020 Big Law
WA Premier Mark McGowan
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WA is the only state that has been regularly imprisoning people for being unable to pay fines, with 48 people issued arrest warrants in the past three months alone.

But following the death of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu – who died in police custody in 2014 after being locked up for $3,622 in unpaid fines – advocates have been pushing to remove the laws, which disproportionately affect Indigenous people. 

The passing of legislation, which will prevent fine defaulters in WA from going to prison was long overdue, according to the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA), who is calling on the government to proclaim the legislation as a matter of urgency.

 
 

“We welcomed last week’s announcement that the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Amendment Bill 2019 (WA) was passed by both [Houses] of Parliament,” said Graham Droppert, incoming national president, Australian Lawyers Alliance. 

“This legislation will [help reduce] the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system in WA.

WA Premier Mark McGowan said the passing of these laws this week will remove an unfair part of the state’s justice system.

“Western Australians have been dragged through prisons for situations that simply do not justify it,” McGowan said.

“It meant our prisons were put under pressure, and it cost WA taxpayers considerably more to send people to prison than the fines will ever be worth… It’s a system that just never made sense.”

Under the new laws, the government will be able to take money from people’s bank accounts, with imprisonment only used as a last resort.

The campaign to end the fines has been led by 24 community organisations under the leadership of the Aboriginal-led coalition Social Reinvestment WA (SRWA).

Shahleena Musk, a senior lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre, said the WA government must not stop here.

She said much more needs to be done to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.

“The McGowan government, like all Australian governments, must show that it values Aboriginal people’s lives and implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice Report,” Ms Musk said.

“These provide a clear roadmap for reducing the discriminatory over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people, including repealing mandatory sentencing and draconian bail laws.”

These changes follow the launch of a successful crowdfunding campaign last year to free Aboriginal women who have been jailed for unpaid fines. 

This campaign – led by Debbie Kilroy from advocacy charity Sisters Inside – has raised more than $1.1 million and helped around 400 women pay their fines.