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Jail a last resort for debtors under new fines law

Western Australia’s archaic and flawed fines enforcement system will be vastly overhauled after Parliament today passed much needed reform today.

Most importantly the legislation will see imprisonment for non-payment of fines restricted so it can only be ordered by a Magistrate, and even then as a last resort.

This was a key recommendation from the Coronial Inquiry into the death of Ms Dhu, who was taken into custody on a warrant of commitment for unpaid fines in 2014.

The suite of amendments to the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994(WA) also includes the introduction of garnishee orders.

This will enable the Sheriff to issue orders to a debtor’s employer or bank and require them to garnish funds from salaries or bank accounts.

Safeguards have been put in place to avoid excessive deductions or further harship.

In addition, the statutory concept of “hardship” has been introduced, which takes into consideration mental illness and disability, experience of family and domestic violence, homelessness, drug and alcohol problems and financial hardship.

“Work and development permits” will balso ecome an option for debtors experiencing hardship affecting their ability to pay their fine debts.

In recognition of the disproportionate impact of suspended licenses on debtors living in remote areas without public transport infrastructure, the new laws prohibit the issuing of licence suspension orders for debtors whose last known address is in a remote area.

All unserved warrants of commitment will be cancelled on the day after the legislation receives Royal Assent.

These debts however will not be wiped however.

Attorney General John Quigley said that it made ‘no economic sense’ for the old legislation to continue, and welcome the changes.

We expect to see a significant reduction in the number of debtors being imprisoned for fine default alone, particularly in regional and remote parts of the State,” Mr Quigley said.

“Under the old regime, it cost the State thousands of dollars to keep fine defaulters locked up.

“It is important that imprisonment remains available as a means of enforcement for individuals who thumb their noses at the system and accrue fines with no intention of paying them back, having ignored all other attempts at enforcement.”

Quigley also reaffirmed the new legislation was to help people avoid falling into hardship or prison in trying times.

“However, there are people in our community who are experiencing genuine hardship and cannot pay a fine,” he said.

“They should not be further entrenched in poverty or forced into prison without any other options to pay the fine.”

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