AT THE moment there is more than $5 million owing in unpaid fines in the Lismore area.
In an attempt to tackle the escalating issue of personal debt, a new Work and Development Order (WDO) scheme has been introduced across NSW to help people in financial hardship pay off their fines, and it's been changing lives.
To be eligible to pay off fines with a WDO, a person must work with a registered organisation and either be receiving a Centrelink benefit, have a mental illness, drug addiction, be homeless or experiencing economic hardship.
The WDO scheme is a partnership between the State Debt Recovery Office (SDRO), the Aboriginal Legal Service and Legal Aid NSW.
It began as a pilot program two years ago and now Legal Aid's WDO co-ordinator Meredith Osborne is looking for more organisations to get involved.
"The scheme is only as effective as the number of organisations registered," Meredith said.
The pilot program showed it gave people a sense of achievement and hope when they saw their debt being cleared, and 82.5% of those involved did not incur more fines after finishing the WDO.
"Sometimes vulnerable people who have thousands of dollars of accumulated debt get so overwhelmed they think they can never pay it off and it can lead to a cycle of secondary offending," Meredith said.
"In the past, their options were limited and paying it off at $20 a fortnight seemed unmanageable. Now people can pay off their debts up to $1000 per month through WDOs."
Since outreach worker for the homeless, Leanne Gilchrist began working with St Vincent De Paul in Lismore nearly two years ago, she has helped people work off thousands of dollars of personal debt.
Her clients can pay off their fines by working at the Lismore soup kitchen or at the Vinnies recycling centre and are paid a rate of $30 per hour.
"Lots of people commented to me they enjoyed doing voluntary work," Leanne said.
"People can also work off their fines through studying vocational courses (at TAFE or ACE) or by undergoing counselling, and that's paid at a higher rate per hour."
Most of the fine debt from the Lismore region is for traffic-related offences such as parking or speeding, but other fines that can accumulate can be court fines, penalty notices, on-the-spot fines, infringement notices, work health and safety or voting fines.
"If you can't pay your fines, eventually your debt will make its way through the system and the State Debt Recovery Office will step in to recover the money," Meredith said.
"Penalties can include the RTA taking your driver's licence which has a significant impact on people who live in regional areas.
"Other penalties can include the sheriff seizing your goods, or your pay can be garnished. The fines don't just go away."
For more information on WDOs, click here. Not all registered organisations are listed, so to be referred to the appropriate one, call the WDO Hotline on 1300 478 879 or visit the Legal Aid NSW or Aboriginal Legal Service websites.
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