Huge volume of unpaid fines prompts enforcement rethink

A report by the Sentencing Advisory Council on the enforcement of fines and infringement notices says Victoria is losing over $400 million in unpaid fines per year. It calls for a distinction to be drawn between those who can’t afford to pay and those who simply refuse, and recommends enforcement methods that target refusers, such as flagging their passports: “Restrictions on international travel are an appropriate means of targeting persons who are likely to have the capacity to pay a court fine or infringement penalty (in light of the cost of international travel) but instead wilfully default.” On the other hand, it says those with less capacity to pay should have their fines reduced. The report identifies “high volume tolling offenders” as a specific problem—illustrated yesterday when a warrant was issued by the Dandenong Magistrates’ Court for the arrest of a woman who owes nearly $300,000 in infringement penalties for more than 1000 unpaid tolls.

Judge goes “out back”, punches lawyer in head

A judge in Florida has been recorded arguing with a defence lawyer before telling him, If you want to fight, let’s go out back”. The lawyer then leaves the courtroom and an altercation can be heard. According to a colleague quoted by Florida Today, “The lawyer said as soon as he got in the hallway the judge grabbed him by the collar and began punching him in the head.” In Australia, the issue of judicial bullying has been debated by lawyers and judges, who acknowledge that courtroom exchanges are stressful and sometimes necessarily heated, and agree that workplace bullying is unacceptable.

VLRC considers Qld-style juror questioning

A Queensland judge has approved a series of questions to be asked of potential jurors in the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife. Before they are empanelled, they will be asked whether they lived near the family, whether they contributed to a fund to help find the killer, and whether they have ever expressed a view about the case. Queensland is the only State in which pre-trial questioning of jurors is allowed; however, as part of its inquiry into Jury Empanelment, the Victorian Law Reform Commission asked, “Should the judge or the parties have the ability to question prospective jurors to determine their impartiality in certain circumstances?” The VLRC’s final report was due on 31 May, and will be made public after it is tabled in parliament.

Prisoners increasingly likely to die after release

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study shows that Australian prisoners are “12 times more likely to die in the first four weeks after release than their peers in the community”, six times more likely to die in the first year—and the rate has been increasing over the last decade. The report suggests that drugs and suicide are two significant causes of post-release death. The University of Melbourne’s Stuart Kinner said, “A prison sentence in Australia is never meant to be a death sentence… but people released from prison remain at increased risk of death indefinitely”. Victorian prisons offer transition programs to assist people returning to the community, to improve their health and to reduce reoffending; however, increasing prison populations are putting those schemes under strain.

Shaw may be expelled for contempt of parliament

The Victorian Parliament’s Privileges Committee, which is responsible for investigating wrongdoing by MPs, has split along party lines in its report on the Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw. The inquiry began when Shaw’s misuse of a government vehicle for his private business was found by the Ombudsman to be in breach of guidelines. The Liberal and National majority report found that Shaw’s contraventions were not “wilful”, but he should be required to repay the money. The Labor minority said he was “completely reckless, careless and indifferent to obligations”, and warned: “All options are on the table, including the expulsion of Geoff Shaw from parliament, the suspension of Geoff Shaw or a heavy fine.” For his part, Shaw says the committee were “nuff-nuffs”. The issue is sensitive, as Shaw holds the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly, and the Government relies on his support to pass its bills. The former Speaker, Ken Smith—who was forced to resign under pressure from Shaw—has announced his intention to cross the floor and vote to adopt the minority report, possibly suspending Shaw and creating a 43-43 vote deadlock in the Assembly. Shaw says he will run for parliament again as an independent, so the people of Frankston will have the final say.