News National Legal experts question ‘messy’ coronavirus laws as police fine hundreds
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Legal experts question ‘messy’ coronavirus laws as police fine hundreds

Legal experts have questioned fines issued to people under coronavirus laws. Photo: TND
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Legal advocates have questioned the “unfair” enforcement of social distancing laws by police, with hefty fines being issued over seemingly harmless activities like sitting in a parked car.

Across the nation, people have been fined more than $1000 for breaching stay-at-home orders by visiting friends, having dinner parties or simply being out in public without a “reasonable excuse”.

New South Wales has issued more than 470 penalty notices since March 17, and Victoria issued 158 fines in a 24-hour period to 9am on Monday alone.

Queensland police have dished out 827 fines since March 27, including 73 in the past 24 hours.

Although it is vital police enforce social distancing laws to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, some Australians have been shocked to receive fines while trying to abide by the rules.

In an embarrassing blunder in Victoria, a couple from the small town of Toongabbie were fined $1652 each for breaching stay-at-home orders after posting photos to social media that were taken on holiday last June.

Police have since revoked the fine.

In the Melbourne suburb of Preston, Victoria Police arrested a refugee advocate and fined dozens of others a total of $43,000 for staging a protest outside a hotel housing refugees and asylum seekers.

Each protester was seated in a car by themselves to comply with social distancing rules while they protested against the crowded conditions inside the hotel.

The police fined them, despite the activists arguing they did it for “compassionate reasons”.

In NSW, a 21-year-old Newcastle man was fined $1000 for eating a kebab on a park bench after ignoring police warnings, and in the Hunter region a couple was fined $2000 for sitting in a parked car without explanation.

Sydney criminal lawyer Annabel Wurth said many of the coronavirus laws were “rife with errors” and would not stand up in court if they were challenged.

“Overnight, all these things people would do in their regular life suddenly became criminal,” Ms Wurth told The New Daily. 

“I had one call from someone who was sitting in a park having a coffee with their dad and police said ‘We can arrest you for this’.

“It’s quite messy legislation. No one really knows how to interpret it and it’s quite unfair in its application.”

To help inform Australians about their legal rights in the coronavirus era, Ms Wurth has created a legal service called COVID Rights.

“There needs to be a lawyer to say, ‘I can answer your calls’,” she said.

What should you say to police if they pull you over?

You have the right to remain silent, Ms Wurth said, although she would not recommend it.

“Make sure you’ve got a clear list of excuses, and think about it beforehand,” she said.

Under stay-at-home orders, there are only four reasons deemed acceptable for leaving the house: Shopping for essentials, work and school, exercise, and medical or compassionate reasons.

“You need to know the legislation and have a clear answer,” Ms Wurth said.

“I wouldn’t recommend having a car with more than two people.

“Even if you all live together, one of you might not have an updated address and you could be fined.”

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International Australia and the Grata Fund have thrown their support behind a website by the Police Accountability Project that records “concerning” interactions with police over coronavirus legislation.

In one report, a man with a severe acquired brain injury was taking a break from exercising at a northern Melbourne park with his carer when he was approached by police.

He said the police told him move on because they “couldn’t just be lounging around”.

In another report, a man terminally ill with cancer was taking a break in his car at Coffs Harbour Jetty when he was asked to move on by police.

To contact COVID Rights, call (02) 7911 3262 or visit www.covidrights.com.au.

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