With a record number of COVID-19 infringement notices issued in New South Wales, justice advocates raise concerns about its impact on the state’s recovery.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS) have warned that the immense fines and charges issued by the NSW Police will flood the court system and overwhelmed the state – slowing down the return to normal.

Research from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), reported in October, noted that the NSW Police issued 36,597 COVID-19 public health order breaches in July and August.

The almost 37,000 fines, issued to Greater Sydney, account for 90 per cent of all breaches issued during the pandemic to date.

BOCSAR found that “increased enforcement activity” was the “major factor driving breaches” and the large number of fines and charges did not reflect “underlying patterns of non-compliance”.

ALS Deputy CEO Anthony Carter described NSW Police as having a “free-for-all”.

“While the vast majority of the community were doing their best to protect one another, NSW Police were having a free-for-all, handing out fines and charges with very little scrutiny,” he said.

“Now as we’re expected to emerge out the other side from COVID, over $33 million of fine debt is hanging over people’s heads and our courts are about to be backlogged with people upholding their right to contest fines.”

Carter said over policing has a detrimental impact on community.

“This kind of excessive policing harms our communities rather than helping them,” he said.

“The data shows this fining blitz did not make us any safer, but entrenched disadvantage for people already doing it tough.”

“We already know the most fines compared to population size were handed out in Brewarrina, a town with one of the highest Aboriginal populations and lowest income levels in NSW.”

The report found that almost half of the breaches were issued to people who had a reported prior offence in the last 5-years.

Carter was unsurprised by this finding.

“In the height of the pandemic, we worked with clients who said they were being followed and harassed under the guise of COVID policing,” he said.

BOCSAR reported that the of number of people fined for failing to comply with police direction, 48 per cent involved police searches of the person, location, or vehicle.

“There are certainly Aboriginal community members who believe they were targeted because of their past interactions with police,” Carter said.

BOCSAR noted that only a “small proportion”, 7.8 per cent, of the breaches resulted in a court attendance. However, this translates to 2,854 matters before Local Court.

They also predicted an increase in court matters contesting the fines.

“NSW courts are already overloaded,” said Carter.

“If the NSW Government doesn’t step in with relief for these tens of thousands of fines, the burden on our courts will be immense and access to justice will be compromised.”

The BOSCAR reporting comes forward after NSW Police Commission Mick Fuller told officers in late August to go on “high-level enforcement” on public health orders and prioritise this “outside of our first response capabilities”.

The footage, which was published by the Sydney Morning Herald, heard the Commissioner dressed in uniform and address officers in an official NSW Police training video.

“I know there is a lot to take in with the health orders, but I am asking you to put community policing aside for a short period of time, for 21 days … you need to take a strong approach to enforcement,” he said.

“I have said before, if you write a ticket and get it wrong, I understand and I won’t hold you to account for that.”

The Commissioner then continued, saying NSW Police must “shape the behaviour of people” to get out of lockdown before Christmas and that the tickets police have issued in the “last four months is five times the year before that”.

The ALS is supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW issued with COVID-19 related fines and charges. People are encouraged to reach out.

By Rachael Knowles