The WA government has finally announced it will be introducing changes to fine-default laws five years after Yamatji woman Ms Dhu died in custody while locked up for unpaid fines.
But WA Attorney-General John Quigley said people could still be imprisoned if they do not pay fines. Under the proposed changes, to be introduced on Thursday, only a magistrate would be able to order imprisonment and only as a last resort.
The raft of legislation was announced this morning, with Mr Quigley saying he hoped it would address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system.
Currently, under the Fines, Penalties and Infringement Notices Enforcement Act 1994 (WA), if a person defaults on a payment arrangement, an arrest warrant is issued and they are detained at a rate of $250 per day until the fine is 'paid off’.
The death of Ms Dhu, who died in horrendous pain in a South Hedland watchhouse after being arrested for unpaid fines in 2014, focused national attention on the issue.
The practice disproportionately targets Aboriginal women, with the majority of female fine defaulters being Aboriginal. It has been recognised as a key factor in the state’s high jailing rates of Aboriginal women.
Mr Quigley said a comprehensive reforms package, which will be introduced to state parliament on Thursday, would significantly change the way fines are enforced and recovered within the state.
“The bill seeks to ensure that imprisonment for fine default is truly a last resort. Only a magistrate will be able to issue a warrant for imprisonment and only under strict circumstances,” he said in a statement.
“It is, unfortunately, the case that it was the tragic death of the late Ms Dhu that became the catalyst for change.”
One of the key changes proposed is to ensure that only a Magistrate is able to order the imprisonment for unpaid fines.
Currently, if you fail to pay your fine, the Fines Enforcement Registry will issue a warrant of commitment, which will result in imprisonment.
The fine default reform package will also include a number of new guidelines:
- “garnishee orders” will allow the Sheriff to issue orders to take money from incomes or bank accounts with a safeguard build for a ‘protected amount’ to remain to avoid undue hardship.
- statutory concept of “hardship”, which includes mental illness and disability, experience of family and domestic violence, homelessness, drug and alcohol problems and financial hardship.
- “work and development permits” to be more accessible.
- due to the lack of public transport resources in remote areas, a prohibition on issuing licence suspension orders for debtors in remote areas.
- a new “conditional release undertaking” model to allow offenders who have been arrested on a warrant to be brought before the court for a warrant of commitment inquiry to be released.
The new bill will also see the cancellation of all unserved warrants of commitment the day after the bill is passed in parliament.
“This bill draws a careful distinction between those who can pay their fines but refuse to do so, and the many experiencing hardships who cannot pay and should not face enforcement measures that further entrench them in poverty,” Mr Quigley said.
“It is important that imprisonment remains available as a means of enforcement for those who can afford to pay their fines but thumb their noses at the system and accrue fines with no intention of paying them back, having ignored all other attempts at enforcement.”