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NSW COVID-19 fines for kids could breach international law

The NSW government has decided not to replace COVID-19 fines, issued to about 3,000 children, with cautions, and has suggested that children unable to pay off fines should complete work and development orders (WDOs) — a decision that could violate international law. 

user iconJess Feyder 10 August 2022 Politics
NSW COVID-19 fines for kids could breach international law
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The NSW government has suggested that children as young as 10 could work off COVID fines by engaging with WDOs, a program that places children in unpaid work, counselling courses or treatment programs, to work off their fines. 

One report finds that almost 3,000 children aged between 10 and 17 in NSW were fined for failing to comply with a direction under COVID health acts. This included children in out-of-home care, children with intellectual disabilities and with mental health conditions.

According to data from the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), from about 500 of the children under 15 who were together fined close to $20,000, twenty-four of them currently remain in unpaid WDOs to reduce their debts.


Dr Noam Peleg, senior lecturer at UNSW’s faculty of law and justice, commented that the government’s suggestion was a breach of Australia’s obligations under international law as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child.   

Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child reads that governments should protect children from work that is dangerous or that might harm their health or education, along with the right to have their best interests regarded as a primary consideration.

“The fines themselves are a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Dr Peleg said. 

“And working orders directed at children are a second, consequential, violation. A child rights framework cannot support fining children and then forcing them to work off their fines.”

Dr Peleg stated that the priority should be to keep children in school, not have them pursue WDOs. 

Much of Dr Peleg’s work has focused on international children’s rights law and its intersection with human rights law. 

Dr Peleg spoke to Lawyers Weekly about how racialised policing during the 2020–21 lockdown and harsh enforcement measures have led to disadvantaged children bearing the brunt of the issue.

Disadvantaged communities — migrant, minority, racial minority, Indigenous, and low socioeconomic communities — were subject to harsher enforcement by police during the lockdowns, stated Dr Peleg.

Disadvantaged children were disproportionately policed, to begin with, stated Dr Peleg, “and now they are subject to the harsh request to work for free in order to pay off their fines, while parents from wealthier families can just bail out their children”.

“Some of these children are below the legal minimum age for working.

“Now they are being asked to pay off fines, diverting them from school or afterschool activities, and from helping family with domestic work and from leisure time,” said Dr Peleg.

“This stands against their rights to education, to freedom from exploitation, the right to leisure and the right to family life.

“It is evident that when those public health measures were put in place that children haven’t been considered.”

When asked about how children can be protected in future policymaking and enforcement, Dr Peleg said: “It is expected when drafting any policy or legislation that can affect children directly or indirectly that their rights and interests will be of paramount consideration.

“Clearly, this policy has not considered the welfare of children from its inception.

“A possible assurance is to conduct the child’s rights impact assessment for any legislation or policy that may affect children.

“Enabling children to participate in the formulation and enforcement of legislations and policies can help ensure that their rights are considered, and hopefully protected.”