Australia to withdraw or refund tens of thousands of COVID fines

A pharmacy displays a sign to inform customers that Rapid Antigen Test kits are sold out in wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

SYDNEY, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Australia's largest state will withdraw or refund tens of thousands of fines issued during the COVID pandemic after government lawyers conceded on Tuesday that some fines were invalid in a test case brought by a legal advocacy group.

Australian states and territories instituted strict restrictions during the pandemic, including limits on travel and movement outside the home. Police in New South Wales, the largest state, could issue fines of A$1,000 ($670.60) to individuals who breached public health orders.

Redfern Legal Centre, a free legal service, launched a test case in July on behalf of three plaintiffs arguing their fines of between A$1,000 to A$3,000, were invalid because the penalty notices did not sufficiently describe the offence.

Government lawyers conceded the plaintiff's fines did not meet legal requirements in a hearing at the New South Wales Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Shortly after, the Commissioner of Fines Administration withdrew 33,121 fines, just under half the 62,138 COVID-related fines issued. The remaining fines are unaffected by the decision.

All sanctions, including driver license restrictions will be stopped. Those who have already paid will be refunded.

"Today justice has been granted to three people who took on the NSW government regarding the validity of their COVID fines and won!” said Samantha Lee, acting solicitor for the plaintiffs in a statement.

Revenue NSW said the challenge was on a "technical basis" and the court's decision did not mean the offences had not been committed.

"The Commissioner of Fines Administration is able to independently review or withdraw penalty notices," said Revenue NSW in a statement.

"In this case, he has decided to exercise his statutory power to withdraw two types of Public Health Order fines."

A full judgement from presiding judge Dina Yehia is expected at a later date.

($1 = 1.4912 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Lewis Jackson; Editing by Michael Perry

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