Melbourne Council agrees to refund parking fines which it had “unfairly” upheld

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Melbourne City Council acted unfairly in upholding fines against drivers who had paid for their parking but made a simple error when entering their registration number, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said the Council had “applied an overly rigid approach to parking errors” by upholding fines against drivers who had confused the number 0 with the letter O when entering their registration in the PayStay app.

“We estimate over 1,200 motorists were affected by a PayStay mistake, which the Council could easily have checked when the driver requested a review,” Ms Glass said.

“The Council knew the number 0 and letter O were virtually indistinguishable on registration plates, and drivers would not be aware they had made an error.”

She said the Council had changed its practices in October 2019, so drivers who make this same mistake now should have their $83 fine withdrawn on appeal. She said the Council had now agreed to refund people who had appealed against this fine in previous years. It had agreed to:

  • review all PayStay zero/O error fines issued during 1 July 2017 - 1 July 2018 and 1 November 2018 - 30 October 2019 where an appeal from the driver was rejected and
  • refund the fine where the Council now considers, under its new Decision Matrix, that the fine would be withdrawn today.

Tabling her Investigation into review of parking fines by the City of Melbourne in the Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass said there were other instances where the “overzealous” attitude of some senior managers in the Council’s parking branch had undermined the basic principles of fairness.

She said the Council had reworded its Penalty Reminder Notice – sent to drivers if an infringement has not been paid after 21 days – to encourage payment. The Council’s Chief Legal Counsel provided internal legal advice that sections of the wording on the Notice were “apt to mislead a person … and appear a threat to a vulnerable recipient.” Yet, the Notice was sent out to drivers for at least three months before being brought into line with the legal advice, after the Ombudsman asked questions about it.

Ms Glass said the investigation began after her office received a whistleblower complaint alleging that Council officers were making these sorts of decisions to increase Council revenue.

“The allegation that the Council was improperly raising revenue was not substantiated,” Ms Glass said.

“The Council was losing money taking these matters to court, although the practical outcome of inflexible decision making undoubtedly contributed to the Council’s bottom line.”

“These actions were apparently driven by an entrenched, overzealous attitude of some in senior management in the parking branch, a mindset that the customer is usually wrong and drivers must be punished for their infractions, no matter how small or how great the mitigation.

“This attitude continued for years, despite some council officers expressing concerns about it to management.”

Ms Glass welcomed the Council’s acceptance of her four recommendations, which also included that it: “conduct an independent review of the behaviours, processes and systems, reporting structures and governance of the Parking Branch, including implementing a process to monitor the use of discretion in reviewing infringements”.

“The Council has not shirked its responsibility for years of unfair decisions and has agreed to make amends, both on an individual and systemic level,” Ms Glass said.

“I commend them for their response, and hope this report is a reminder to all who exercise discretion of the need to keep fairness at its heart.”

Media contact: Ainslie Gowan | Mob 0409 936 235 ainslie.gowan@ombudsman.vic.gov.au