Vulnerable people and those experiencing hardship often get caught up in the fines system, which can have serious social consequences. Failure to pay a fine will result in enforcement action. This means that Revenue NSW can suspend a person’s driver’s licence, cancel their car registration, seize property and garnishee wages or bank accounts.
Without a driver’s licence, it can be difficult to obtain or retain employment. It can lead to social isolation due to a lack of transport, particularly in regional areas. If a person continues to drive on a suspended licence, it can be a direct pathway into the criminal justice system and even imprisonment.
The NSW public sector’s world-first response to this problem is the Work and Development Order (WDO) scheme. Under the WDO scheme, vulnerable people with accumulated fines can clear their debts by up to $1,000 per month by undertaking activities that benefit them and the community. Activities include unpaid work (such as volunteering for charities), completing education courses, undertaking financial counselling, taking part in mentoring or treatment programs for drug or alcohol abuse, or undergoing medical or mental health treatment.
WDOs are circuit breakers. In most cases, a licence is restored when a person is approved to undertake a WDO. WDOs also allow participants to gain much-needed skills, knowledge and treatment, and they are connected with services that can help with a range of issues – not just outstanding fines.
[I] learnt a new trade, learnt computer skills and can now get my licence. I’ve had issues with fines for 20 years and just couldn’t manage to deal with it. And now I finally have it under control.
The WDO scheme is jointly delivered by the Department of Communities and Justice, Revenue NSW and Legal Aid NSW, with input from the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT). These agencies formed a Governance Group to ensure the scheme is administered responsibly and in line with government and community expectations.
However, the collaboration does not stop with the Governance Group.
The scheme’s true strength lies in the cooperation between the government, the community and the health sector to design an effective response that considered both provider and participant needs. WDOs are supervised by ‘sponsors’ in the community, including government agencies, non‑government organisations (such as charities) and health practitioners (including doctors, psychologists and nurses). The sponsors deliver the scheme within their existing resources, recognising the value for vulnerable people who are connected to services and treatment programs while they clear debt.
The Governance Group delegates tasks and assigns accountability to an agency representative or working group. This clear governance is one reason for the success of the collaboration. Here are some others:
- A preliminary trial with a small pool of sponsors and participants allowed the Governance Group to co-design the program, learn from experience and adapt the scheme before rolling it out more broadly.
- Feedback from the community and participants has helped the scheme to evolve – for example, making WDOs accessible to people aged under 18 and victims of family violence.
- Regular communications with sponsors, through a biannual newsletter, forums, webinars, YouTube videos and podcasts, ensure they are up to date with the latest news about the scheme and how it works.
- Providing clear guidelines to sponsors and participants helps them understand what is required of them, and when.
The WDO scheme has been so successful that other Australian jurisdictions have introduced similar schemes. In NSW, as at 30 June 2019:
- 2,114 sponsors were delivering WDOs
- 51% of sponsors were located in regional areas
- more than 135,000 WDOs were completed or ongoing
- more than $167 million in fines debt had been resolved
- 55% of WDO activities involved much-needed treatment programs
- 21% of WDOs were undertaken by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples
- 25% of WDOs involved people aged under 25, breaking the cycle of fines early.
The scheme contributes directly to tackling longstanding social issues stemming from the fines system, as well as providing participants with skills, knowledge and treatment. In short, WDOs improve social outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged people in NSW.