Thousands of parking fines to be refunded as Ombudsman finds three Councils acted ‘contrary to law’

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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.

Tabling her Investigation into three councils’ outsourcing of parking fine internal reviews in the Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass said the three councils had withheld important information from affected motorists and the public.

She found:

  • 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.

Media contact: Sally-Anne Curtain | Mob 0409 936 235 sally-anne.curtain@ombudsman.vic.gov.au