Backchat: Police caution needed in COVID public health enforcement

August 27th 2021

Photos by Christopher Hanna

  • Samantha Lee (Redfern Legal Centre) :: Interview on Backchat

Redfern Legal Centre Police Accountability Solicitor Samantha Lee joined Backchat to discuss their raised concerns for vulnerable people being caught up in law enforcement crackdowns.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller urged his officers last week to hand out more fines and future court attendance notices, as part of a ‘high level enforcement’ approach to public health orders.While no one is doubting the need for compliance during Greater Sydney’s tough extended lockdown, arbitrary use of police discretion to enforce these measures leaves much room for error.

“The difficulty with these fines is that the law keeps changing … The laws have changed over 60 times, people are confused. And people aren’t out there generally flouting the laws. There are many people that just plainly don’t know what is going on, that are wanting to do the right thing.” 

When asked about the high monetary cost of the fines and their effects on people’s lives solicitor Samantha Lee said: 

“A five thousand dollar fine is a huge amount of money, especially for students, for those on Centrelink, for those on low wages. It takes up more than their wage, it would probably be a month or even more of their wage.”

“We think fining is not the way out of this actual public health issue. That there is room to inform, to make people aware of the directions and to give people an opportunity to correct their behaviour before issuing a fine.” 

Samantha Lee reiterated the need for police not to issue a fine as a first response to suspected public health breaches. She told Backchat that Redfern Legal Centre gained access to guidelines for police regarding covid fines:

“Those guidelines do say that police should make people aware of the directive, and to look at the opportunity to issue a caution or a direction to change their behaviour before issuing a fine or court attendance notice.”  

On the topic of police discretion when interpreting public health orders Sam told Backchat:

“Look this puts police above the law, police are a government body and all government bodies do have accountability practices in place for good reason. We are part of a democracy and police should not be above this.”

“It’s always a problem when police discretion is so wide, which it is in these circumstances. The actual public health offences are quite vague when you compare it to say a traffic offence or a parking offence.”

“With these public health offences the terms are very vague like ‘reasonableness’, ‘you have a valid excuse’, it leaves it wide open for police to interpret what these actual words mean.”

Sam ended the conversation with some final advice on what to do if you think you are complying with the public health orders and are approached by police.

“People need to remember the onus has not changed, it’s still on police to prove the offence. We always advise people to be cooperative with police because otherwise it can get worse. You don’t have to answer questions, you can say that you are doing exercise or recreation. If you are in the affected or stricter lockdown LGA’s there are limits in terms of exercise you can’t undertake recreation”

“Be cooperative, you only have to say to police I don’t want to answer any further questions” 

Redfern Legal Centre provides a free legal advice service for people in NSW who have been issued a COVID-19 fine. 

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