Thousands of parking fines to be refunded as Ombudsman finds three Councils acted ‘contrary to law’Date posted:
Parking fines are a fact of life. When you’ve done the wrong thing, you should pay up.
But sometimes fines are issued wrongly. In those cases, we need to know there is a valid appeal process in place.
What I have found in my recent investigation is that three councils – Stonnington, Glen Eira and Port Phillip – did not have proper internal review processes in place for about 10 years.
Motorists have a right to seek an internal review from the agency that issued the fine.
Whenever anyone appealed to these councils about a fine, a council officer should have decided on it.
Yet, these councils had outsourced their reviews to a private contractor.
A few years ago, a lawyer who specialises in fines began writing to some councils, questioning their practices.
His questions triggered a string of legal advices. Some councils began to change their practices, bringing the review of parking fine appeals in-house.
Early last year, two councils – Monash and Kingston – announced they would be refunding more than 46,000 fines incurred during the time their reviews were outsourced.
I have now investigated whether Stonnington, Glen Eira and Port Phillip’s practices were any different.
What I have found is that:
- one of these councils had indeed outsourced its decision making
- the other two councils were, in effect, rubber-stamping the contractor’s recommendations.
For example, we discovered a council officer took one minute to approve recommendations on 107 reviews.
This worked out to be about half a second per review.
It is simply not credible to argue that council officers were making genuine decisions.
None of the three councils disclosed who was making the decisions … each of them providing a similar squiggle by an anonymous officer.
The three councils argue they have done nothing wrong. Some said the law is complex and unclear and lawyers have different views about what it requires.
The legal issues have not been tested in court. I am not a court, but I can express my opinion … and my opinion is the three councils acted contrary to law.
They failed to ensure transparency and accountability in their decision making.
While the three councils disagree with my opinion, as a sign of good faith they will now be refunding people affected.
And my report puts any other agencies with similar practices on notice that they should do the same.
Three councils failed to act with accountability and transparency in a matter involving the outsourcing of parking fine reviews, Ombudsman Deborah Glass has found.
Glen Eira, Port Phillip and Stonnington councils had acted ‘contrary to law’ by outsourcing the review of their parking fines to a private contractor, Ms Glass said. She said a law, introduced in 2006, strongly suggests reviews must be decided by the council that issued the fine.
Last year, Monash and Kingston councils announced they would be repaying 46,000 fines (issued between 2006 and 2016) due to legal doubts about their previous outsourcing arrangements. In response, the three councils at the centre of this investigation argued their outsourcing arrangements were different and/or lawful.
- Glen Eira Council did outsource its decision making to a contractor for 10 years after the 2006 law change
- Port Phillip Council and Stonnington Council “in effect rubber-stamped the contractor’s recommendations” during a similar time period.
“The legal issues have not been tested in court, so I cannot definitely determine the lawfulness of the councils’ actions,” Ms Glass said. “But I can express my opinion, which is that the three councils acted contrary to law.”
She said it stretched credulity for Port Phillip Council to argue it made its own decisions based on the contractor’s recommendations.
“The speed with which recommendations were accepted gave no hint of independent assessment,” Ms Glass said. “We discovered a council officer took one minute to approve recommendations on 107 reviews. This worked out to be about half a second per review.
“The suggestion that council officers were making genuine decisions on the evidence was simply not credible.
“It is also apparent that none of the three councils disclosed who was making internal review decisions, each of them providing a similar squiggle by an anonymous officer.”
Ms Glass said after receiving legal advice in 2016 and 2017, councils changed their internal review practices to bring decision making in-house. She said her investigation raised some fundamental issues about accountability and transparency.
“At least five councils outsourced internal reviews of parking fines to a private contractor over a period of 10 years. Two councils publicly acknowledged legal doubts and refunded affected motorists.
“Three other councils asserted their practices were lawful, with a generic signature on review letters disguising the identity of their decision makers.
“While it was reasonable for these councils to seek legal advice, they failed to ensure transparency and accountability in their decision making.”
Ms Glass said the three councils argue they have done nothing wrong: some said the law is complex and unclear and lawyers have different views about what it requires.
While the councils disagree with the Ombudsman’s findings, they have all agreed, as a gesture of goodwill, to refund affected people.
The councils provided an estimate of the cost of refunding fines reviewed and upheld by their private contractor between the 2006 changes in the law and when the councils brought decision making in-house in late 2016 and 2017:
- Port Phillip has more than 87,000 affected fines valued at $8.8 million
- Stonnington has almost 81,000 affected infringements valued at around $6.9 million
- Glen Eira has more than 36,000 affected infringements valued at $3.67 million.