Taha v Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court & Ors; Brookes v Magistrates’ Court of Victoria & Anor  VSC 642 (16 December 2011)
The Supreme Court has held that infringements officers and courts may have a duty to inquire whether a person has ‘special circumstances’ – such as intellectual disability or mental illness – before imprisoning that person in lieu of payment of unpaid fines. This duty arises under section 160 of the Infringements Act when read in conjunction with the right to liberty, the right to a fair hearing and the right to equality before the law under the Victorian Charter.
On 16 December 2011, Justice Emerton overturned an order that a person with an intellectual disability who had failed to pay fines should be jailed. Mr Taha had been unable to meet repayments under an imprisonment in lieu order pursuant to section 160 of the Infringements Act 2006 (Vic). On 12 January, the OPP filed Applications for Leave to Appeal.
Mr Taha appeared at Broadmeadows Magistrates Court in relation to $11,250.20 of unpaid fines – mostly public transport matters – in 2009. Unbeknownst to the duty lawyer or Court at the time, he had an intellectual disability and was on a Justice Plan – an order under the Sentencing Act, which is available only to persons with intellectual disability. The Magistrate made an order under section 160(1) of the Infringements Act that he pay the fines in instalments of $80 per month or face automatic imprisonment. Mr Taha, a disability support pensioner, did not pay the outstanding amount beyond $1280. The Sheriff contacted him indicating he would be imprisoned for 81 days and Mr Taha consequently sought the assistance of Victoria Legal Aid.
Victoria Legal Aid sought judicial review of the section 160 order on behalf of Mr Taha in the Supreme Court. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) intervened in support of Mr Taha’s arguments that his Charter rights under sections 8, 21 and 24 of the Charter – recognition and equality before the law, liberty and fair hearing – were infringed. The Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court took an unusually active role in proceedings, opposing the application for judicial review.
Her Honour found there to be first, a denial of procedural fairness and second, a jurisdictional error, in that the Magistrate did not consider whether sub-section 160(2) applied. Sub-section 160(2) enables Magistrates to dismiss fines if people have ‘special circumstances’. ‘Special Circumstances’ are defined in the Act as: any mental or intellectual disability, disorder, disease or illness or a serious addiction to substances, which render a person unable to understand that they are offending or control their conduct. Alternatively, it may be homelessness, which leads to inability to control conduct. Sub-section 160(3) allows dismissal if imprisonment would be excessive, disproportionate and unduly harsh. Mr Taha had in fact had subsequent fines revoked on the grounds of his special circumstances.
Mr Taha’s counsel argued for a ‘unified’ approach to section 160, meaning that the possibility of dismissal under sub-sections 160(2) and (3) must be considered before an imprisonment in lieu order is made under sub-section 160(1). Her Honour held that such a unified approach was supported by the Charter rights to liberty, a fair hearing and to equal protection of the law. Invoking principles of indirect discrimination, Her Honour held that the right to equality under section 8 of the Charter meant that the Court may be required to make inquiries of the infringement offender aimed at ascertaining whether subsections 160(2) or (3) applied. She stated:
It is in the nature of an intellectual disability or a mental illness that it may prevent the offender from. . . raising the condition with the Court. It would defeat the purpose. . . if it could only be enlivened by the actions of a person burdened by a condition that may disable them from forming and exercising the necessary judgement to do so.
In finding a duty to inquire (a duty, which is rarely applied in our adversarial system), Her Honour recognised:
- the requirement of special treatment for people with intellectual disabilities, which is ‘reinforced’ by section 8(3) of the Charter;
- that the relevant inquiries, such as of the type of Centrelink benefit Mr Taha received or whether he was on a Justice Plan, could easily be made; and
- that representation by duty lawyers with significant workloads does not necessarily constitute ‘adversarial’ justice; whereby it can be assumed that all relevant facts are before the Court.
Relevance of the Victorian Charter
In focusing on a substantially just outcome, which recognises the difficulties faced by people with disabilities in their interaction with the legal system, Her Honour’s decision is most welcome and a successful appeal against it will be a retrograde step for human rights as recognised in the Charter.
Aside from the rights pertaining more specifically to persons with disabilities, the consolidated cases of Taha and Brookes highlight a more general and grave systemic problem in Victoria’s legal system – the absence of an accessible avenue of merits-based appeal against orders to imprison people for non-payment of fines. Victoria Legal Aid, whose duty lawyers see an increasing number of imprisonment in lieu orders being made, is lobbying for introduction of such an appeal right.
The decision can be found online at: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/vic/VSC/2011/642.html
Sophie Delaney is a Senior Lawyer with Victoria Legal Aid’s Civil Justice Program