More than 900 people were placed on work orders for Covid fines now known to be entirely invalid, prompting calls for them to be compensated for their unpaid labour or training.
The New South Wales government on Tuesday said it would withdraw 33,000 fines for two specific Covid offences, after conceding that they were too vague and that the fines were improperly issued.
But a Guardian Australia analysis suggests hundreds of people have already been working off the invalid fines, either through unpaid labour, training, or counselling.
Publicly available data shows the government placed 929 people who received the invalid fines on work and development orders (WDOs), a voluntary process that uses work or participation in training or counselling to reduce a fine amount.
Altogether, they were working off a total of $929,000 in now-withdrawn fines, an average of $1,000 each.
The Redfern Legal Centre, which ran a test case that caused the 33,000 fines to be withdrawn, said those placed on work orders for invalid fines should be compensated.
“With a large number of Covid fines being conceded by the NSW government as being invalid, potentially all those people who worked off those invalid Covid fines on a WDO, including many children, could seek some form of redress,” senior solicitor Samantha Lee told the Guardian.
“The large cost of these fines meant that adults and children were required to work many hours to pay them off.”
It is unclear whether Revenue NSW will reimburse those who have performed unpaid labour or training for their time.
In a statement on Wednesday, it said it would cease any sanctions that were currently associated with the withdrawn fines – including driver licence restrictions or the use of garnishee orders to forcibly claw back debts.
It also said it would refund fines that had already been paid or credit the payment to other outstanding debts.
Work and development orders are a voluntary process designed to aid those without the financial means to pay back fines. But the government was criticised earlier this year for using them for Covid breaches, particularly for children, given concerns around the validity of the fines and the penalty review system.
On Wednesday the deputy premier, Paul Toole, defended the enforcement of the fines while conceding the government had made an “error” in drafting the public health orders at the centre of the case.
“The public health orders that were introduced actually were there to protect the community. They were there to keep people safe,” he said.
“Our police went out there and actually followed the public health orders that were put in place. We’re talking about a pandemic that was a one-in-100 year pandemic. This was about saving lives. This was about keeping the community safe.”
Despite data showing some communities – particularly in western Sydney – were disproportionately targeted by police during lockdowns, Toole denied officers were “overzealous”.
“Police were not overzealous, police were undertaking the public health orders,” he said.
“I’ll back our police in each and every day for the work that they did to keep the community safe.”
Dai Le, the independent federal MP for Fowler in Sydney’s south-west, said the NSW government should reimburse those placed on work orders and review the remaining 29,017 fines yet to be withdrawn
“It’s great the NSW government will be withdrawing the fines, but those people who had to work or were put on those orders, if they have done it already the only decent thing for the government to do is pay these people,” she said.
“Pay them back for their work, for their time.”
Le said it had, at times, felt as if she was “in a war zone” during lockdowns in Sydney’s west, and that the flow-on effect was still being felt, particularly in migrant communities where access to mental health treatment was lacking.
Revenue NSW has previously confirmed that children had been placed on work and development orders for Covid fines – including for failing to wear a mask.
Community legal centres had previously urged the government to replace Covid fines for children with cautions.
The government refused the request, instead suggesting children could be placed on work orders to help them pay off the fines.