There is no way I could’ve dealt with the fines by myself, the only way I did was with the help of workers and a lawyer. The letters kept coming and to deal with them there was lots of writing, it was all a bit much … Getting the fines sorted was like a weight lifted, like going to the dentist and having the pressure released. It’s a good feeling. It encourages me to get my stuff a bit more organised and together, start working again.*
The context – homelessness and public space
In Victoria, Australia, there are 22,789 people experiencing homelessness. Over 1000 of these people sleep rough and others stay in refuges, rooming houses, transitional accommodation, in their cars or on people’s couches.
Justice Connect Homeless Law (formerly the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic) assists about 200 clients each year with fines and infringements for ‘public space offences’. Public space offences include being drunk in a public place, begging, possessing an open container of liquor, littering, using offensive language and conduct on public transport (e.g. not having a ticket, smoking on the platform or having feet on the seat).
People experiencing homelessness are: (1) more likely to get these fines because they are forced to carry out their private lives in public places; and (2) less likely to be able to address the fines through payment or navigating the complex legal system.
There are some good features of the Victorian system, including the ‘special circumstances’ process, which allows fines to be waived where it can be shown that a person’s mental illness, substance dependence and/or homelessness caused them to be unable to understand or control the offending conduct, but it’s an unwieldy, inefficient process, which often drags out for years and makes it tough for clients to stay engaged. It also burns through the resources of free legal service providers like ours. For clients who don’t get assistance, they can end up in jail (one day for every $140 owing).
In short, the current fines system in Victoria doesn’t effectively address the underlying causes of a person’s offending. Instead it issues financial penalties that struggling people can’t pay and increases the strain they’re already under. The system also places a burden on legal and community services that assist clients to deal with their fines and infringements and causes congestion in the courts.
It’s a system in need of reform.
Personal stories of homelessness and fines
Homeless Law and other community organisations have been advocating for reform of the fines and infringements system for over a decade. We realise, though, that the most compelling evidence about the impact of a flawed legal system comes from people who have directly experienced it. With this in mind, in mid-2013 Homeless Law worked on a project, ‘In the Public Eye – personal stories of homelessness and fines‘.
Through short films, photographs and audio recordings, Anthony, Richard, Emma, Darren, Hamish* and Julia* talk about being homeless and living in the public eye. They talk about the risk of being targeted by issuing officers and they call for greater insight from the people who give fines. They ask the very sensible question: what’s the point of fining people who clearly can’t pay?
Each person shares their insight about how the system could be improved and talks about their hopes for the future.
The result is six candid personal stories about the impact of Victoria’s fines and infringements system on struggling members of the community. These insights remind us that the current system isn’t working and motivate us to seek out better ways for dealing with use of public space by people experiencing homelessness.
Churchill Fellowship: addressing the negative impact of laws regulating public space on people experiencing homelessness