Victoria Police has vowed to pursue outstanding fines for breaches of coronavirus restrictions, blaming "poorly worded" advice circulated to members for mistakenly giving the impression thousands of infringements handed out during the pandemic would be dropped.
Deputy Commissioner Rick Nugent said on Monday that police would continue to pursue the tens of thousands of people whose fines remained unpaid, and he admitted the wording in a guidance note to officers in December "wasn't ideal and didn't send the right message".
Police issue fines to people at a protest in support of refugees at the Mantra hotel in Preston.
The Age revealed on Monday that officers who issued fines for breaches of COVID-19 restrictions were instructed to hand out cautions for unpaid infringements rather than proceed with charges.
The guidelines – prepared by the force's legal services department and circulated in an internal email on December 17 – urged police prosecutors and officers involved in contested cases to take the most lenient approach.
The note said charges would proceed only for people classified as tier three, who demonstrated "repeated, deliberate or continuing breaches of the Chief Health Officer's directions", or those infected with COVID-19 who refused to isolate.
However, Mr Nugent said police policy had not changed and officers would continue to pursue outstanding fines in court as they would other serious offences.
"A guide was prepared for prosecutors and police with respect to prosecuting fines. In hindsight, that document was poorly worded and doesn't appropriately articulate the process for fines and warnings in relation to the Chief Health Officer directions," he said.
"We will prosecute all those that should be prosecuted. It's certainly not an area that we have policed in the past … in that context, those fines went to people who blatantly and deliberately breached CHO directions and put others at risk. So we will proceed with those as we would with other serious offences."
Mr Nugent denied there had been any change to the policy position, or that less priority was placed on pursuing COVID-related fines. "There is no policy shift whatsoever in terms of our approach to those fines and the importance of those fines."
New advice is now being drafted, he said. About 40,000 fines have been issued during the pandemic and about 3000 have been paid. Another 5700 people who were fined have "accepted guilt" and established a payment plan, Mr Nugent said.
About 2400 fines have proceeded to court. Mr Nugent could not say how many of the 40,000 fines had been withdrawn.
People were fined $200 for not wearing face masks in public and up to $1652 for most stay-at-home order breaches. Fines of $4957 applied for unlawful gatherings and COVID-positive people who failed to self-isolate.
Premier Daniel Andrews distanced himself from the police advice after it was reported on Monday, saying it was not a government decision.
"Victoria Police are completely independent of the government, that's not a decision the government's made, that is a decision the Chief Commissioner has made," he said. "The exact details of those decisions, why they've done what they've done … you'd have to speak to the Chief Commissioner about that."
In October Mr Andrews said fines must be paid, as he warned: "We will come after you if you don’t."
Fines issued for breaches of the Chief Health Officer's directions are reviewed by police. A fine recipient can also request a second review by Victoria Police.
If the fine proceeds, the person has 28 days to pay and if they do not, they receive a reminder and final notice. If they still do not pay, it is referred to Fines Victoria, a warrant is issued and it proceeds to the Sherriff's Office.
People can also elect to have their matter heard by a court, in which case the informant – the officer who issued the fine – prepares a brief of evidence and, if approved, a summons is issued and the matter will proceed to court.
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