Sheriff called over unpaid tollway fines
It was a bad moment in what had already been a very challenging year or so. The young New Zealander had recently had her first baby with her partner, Julian. Then, Julian had been diagnosed with cancer. Now the sheriff was telling her she was under arrest and faced the prospect of prison.
The couple had started grappling with toll road fines around the time Georgia had given birth to son Finn. Then came the diagnosis. Frankly they had other things to worry about.
Georgia wasn't to know it, but she is one of the swelling ranks of people criminalised in Victoria over big infringement debts on unpaid CityLink and EastLink tolls.
The growth in value of outstanding toll warrants outstrips that of all other warrants, including for other traffic offences, and accounts for the bulk of the increase in the value of outstanding warrants.
Increasingly, toll debt cases are dominating and clogging Victoria's courts. And they are set to grow exponentially as the existing toll roads are widened and the network extended, including through Transurban's proposed Western Distributor.
Pressure is mounting for reform.
"The justice system was never built for that," says veteran western suburban community lawyer, Denis Nelthorpe. "And the courts and magistrates are struggling unbelievably with it."
They aren't the only ones struggling. Julian had commuted to work through periods in 2013 and 2014 unaware, he says, of the toll rules. And the couple also moved house.
Toll notices mailed did not reach them for months, by which time Julian had run up 183 infringements - a total of more than $50,000 in tolls, fines and fees.
Georgia and Julian had agreed to a payment plan of $120 a fortnight. But over Christmas 2014 they defaulted, a mistake that led to yet more fines.
Their story is familiar one.
In another recent case a toll road user racked up $100,000 in outstanding toll infringement debt. A magistrate this year gave him 80 years to pay off the debt. The final payment falls due when the offender is 130.
A current case involves a Gippsland man with $450,000 in infringement debt, most of it toll-related.
The ballooning figure for outstanding toll warrants suggests the penalties are failing to act as a deterrent. It also raises questions about the state's role as debt collector and enforcer for private tolling companies, an arrangement put in place in the mid-1990s by the Kennett government as part of the CityLink contract.
By contrast, when customers fail to pay service providers such as Telstra or Origin Energy, or retailers such as Harvey Norman, these are civil matters between the company and its customers. Rarely, if ever, do such customers end up with penalties of $50,000 or $100,000 for failing to pay bills.
Victorian Greens consumer affairs spokeswoman Ellen Sandell has called for an investigation by the Ombudsman into the "ridiculous" debts. "Victorians should not have to live with the stress of huge debts and the threat of going to prison when all they did was drive on a toll road."
The tolls themselves make up a small fraction of the large warrant figures, often under $10 each. The big hit comes from the multiple administrative fees included in invoices for each unpaid toll from Transurban (CityLink) and ConnectEast (EastLink), and then additional fees by government agencies Civic Compliance and the Sheriff's Office, as unpaid tolls evolve into infringements, enforcement orders and warrants.
Many of the offenders are not what he describes as the "usual suspects" – court regulars with histories of mental health issues and/or alcohol or drug abuse.
"What we're seeing quite often is first-timers, including middle aged women, who have virtually never had a parking ticket before. That indicates a system was out of control and potentially broken".
Often the people concerned - like Georgia - have been affected by one-off or short-term problems such as a death in the family, illness or loss of a job.
Late in 2015, lawyers pleaded at the Werribee court to show lenience to Georgia, who has suffered postpartum depression.
"I was struggling with being a first-time mum when I defaulted on the payments," she says. "I was so wrapped up in every little problem I had with the baby, I didn't even realise I had defaulted for two months."
The court agreed to waive much of her debt but insisted she pay $1200, a small proportion of the total sum but a substantial amount nonetheless for a young family with big challenges.
Mr Nelthorpe says the non-payment of tolls should be matter between the tolling companies and toll road users. And he says that follow-up invoices should generate one administrative fee per offender to keep the overall penalty within reason. "For many people, the bigger the amount the less they are inclined to face it," he says.
Georgia says the multitude of fines and the size of her toll debts only compounded more pressing personal problems. "I think I was in denial. Honestly if you've been living your life and someone comes up to you and says, 'You owe us $57,000', it's a ridiculous amount of money. Do they really expect a 24-year-old to be able to handle the stress of such a large debt, let alone be able to pay it?"
To date the Andrews government has shown no interest in tackling the escalating toll infringement debt. Nor does it even acknowledge a problem.
Acting Attorney-General Jane Garrett simply stressed that 99 per cent of those who used toll roads did so legally.
A department spokeswoman stressed that tolls were well publicised and "motorists actively choose to drive on toll roads".
"While the majority of people do the right thing, unfortunately there are always a small percentage who choose to flout the law," said the spokeswoman.
theage.com.au 7 Jan 2016
What the corporate media is NOT telling you is that:
- The person who knocks on your door is NOT a real sheriff.
- The face of the 'public' 'sheriff' Brendan Facey is not in office lawfully.
- The Sheriff Act 2009 has not been enacted lawfully.