Three Victorian councils could end up refunding more than $19 million in parking fines following an investigation by the state ombud.
In her latest report, Deborah Glass looked into Melbourne’s Glen Eira, Port Phillip and Stonnington councils, after two other councils announced they would refund more than 46,000 infringements incurred over a decade.
The Monash and Kingston councils had outsourced their reviews to a private contractor, but had since learned they should have made decisions about internal reviews themselves, according to Glass.
“The commentary following these announcements suggested some councils were aware of doubts about the lawfulness of their outsourcing arrangements, and three councils, Glen Eira, Port Phillip and Stonnington, issued statements defending them,” she wrote.
“I therefore decided to look into these councils, to see if they were indeed different from those who had decided to pay up.”
The situation stemmed from laws introduced in 2006 which gave motorists a right to seek an internal review from the council or agency that issued them with a fine.
Glass noted that Glen Eira, Port Phillip and Stonnington had changed their practices in 2016, suggesting they were “aware that the outsourcing of internal reviews was inappropriate”. She argued the councils’ actions appeared to be “contrary to law”.
The ombud found that while council officers could review evidence, the speed with which they accepted recommendations “gave no hint of independent assessment”. She noted one file review showed a council officer had taken just one minute to approve recommendations for 107 applications — about half a second per application.
None of the three councils disclosed who was making internal review decisions, and each provided a “similar squiggle by an anonymous officer”, Glass found.
She recommended the councils set up refund schemes for affected motorists by April. They accepted the recommendation, despite all denying their actions were unlawful.
The councils have estimated the refunds would cost more than $19 million, not including administration costs.
Glen Eira said the value of infringements collected and subject to internal review from 2006-2016 was $3.67 million, which was “not an inconsiderable amount of revenue that would normally be invested in community services and facilities to the benefit of the broad Glen Eira community”.
The council asserted it would take its responsibility to act ethically and with integrity seriously.
“Council will therefore reflect on the findings and recommendations of this report and give early consideration to what further action may be appropriate in the circumstances, including consideration of an in good faith reimbursement scheme,” it wrote.
Similarly, Port Phillip Council agreed to refund fees as a goodwill gesture, “where applications for internal review for parking infringements were refused and where council determines that inadequate consideration may have been given”.
Stonnington also said it would refund fines in instances where there was no evidence that a council officer had exercised their own discretion on a review.
“While council maintains it has no legal liability to take any action regarding its internal reviews of parking infringements, it is nevertheless willing, as a gesture of goodwill, to resolve the issues under investigation,” it stated.
The councils also accepted the recommendation that they identify decision makers in internal review decision notices by name and title, or by an anonymised but identifying reference.
Glass made two recommendations to the director of Fines Victoria regarding the updating of internal review guidelines for enforcement agencies, and requesting information about internal review practices.
She also recommended the secretary of the Department of Justice and Community Safety, Rebecca Falkingham, “seek amendments to the Infringements Act to clarify who can conduct internal reviews of parking infringements, for the avoidance of doubt”.
Falkingham accepted the recommendation, but noted that “ultimately any legislative amendments are a matter for the government and Parliament”.
Glass noted the councils represented only a “fraction” of the 79 councils and other agencies in the state that can issue fines, but no definitive list exists of which ones had engaged contractors to assist with internal reviews.