Is Begging Illegal?
Begging is the act of asking others for something, usually money, with no expectation from the givers of anything in return. Beggars are often seen in Australia in public places such as train stations, parks and shopping areas. Each state and territory has specific laws related to begging.
Under the Summary Offences Act 2005, a person must not:
- beg for money or goods in a public place;
- cause, procure or engage a child to beg for money or goods in a public place;
- solicit donations of money or goods in a public place.
The maximum penalty is a fine of 10 penalty units ($1334.50) or 6 months imprisonment. The law does not apply to a person authorised by a registered charity to solicit donations, or to a busker who has permission from the local council to perform in a public place.
New South Wales
Begging was decriminalised in NSW in 1979. However, beggars can still be penalised by laws that govern behaviour in public places. Under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002, police have discretionary “move on” powers which allow them to order a person to leave a public place if the person’s behaviour or presence:
- is obstructing people or traffic;
- constitutes harassment or intimidation of another person or people;
- is causing or is likely to cause fear to another person or people;
- is for the purpose of supplying or soliciting drugs.
The Act also allows a police officer to order an intoxicated person to leave a public place and not return for up to 6 hours if the officer reasonably believes the person is likely to cause injury to another person, damage to property, or otherwise poses a risk to public safety, or is disorderly. Failure to comply with a police direction carries a maximum penalty of a fine of 2 penalty units ($220).
The Crimes Act 1900 is another piece of legislation under which beggars can be penalised. This Act makes “consorting” an offence, where a person who habitually mixes with convicted offenders, after being officially warned to stay away from those offenders, faces a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 3 years, or a fine of 150 penalty units ($16,500), or both. The law was enacted to deal with bikie gangs and organised crime but the NSW Ombudsman has found the laws have been mainly applied to vulnerable groups including homeless people.
Begging is prohibited in Victoria. Under the Summary Offences Act 1966, a person must not beg or gather alms, and must not cause, procure or engage a child to beg or gather alms. The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment.
Begging is also banned in or around trains and trains stations under the Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) (Conduct on Public Transport) Regulations 2015, and carries a fine of 5 penalty units ($826.10). It is also banned under the City of Melbourne Activities Local Law 2019, and carries a fine of 2.5 penalty units ($413.05).
In Victoria, beggars are encouraged to undergo counselling and health checks, and given contacts to help find employment.
Begging has been legal in WA since 2004, when anti-begging laws were repealed following a recommendation from the Law Reform Commission.
Australian Capital Territory
Begging is not an offence in the ACT. However, like in NSW, beggars can be penalised by discretionary “move on” powers exercised by police in public areas. Under the Crimes Act 1900, a police officer can issue an “exclusion direction” if they reasonably believe a person has engaged in, is engaging in, or is about to engage in, violence or intimidation that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety. The officer can direct the person to immediately leave the area, remain outside the area for up to 6 hours, or leave the area by a particular route or in a particular direction. Failure to comply with a direction carries a maximum penalty of a fine of 2 penalty units ($320).
Why is begging made illegal?
For most people who beg, the act is necessary for survival. It is usually a last resort to supplement an inadequate income and to avoid having to engage in criminal activity such as theft, drug dealing or prostitution to procure essentials.
It is distinguished legally from donation collection by charities, and from informal, street-level activity such as busking, footpath art and windscreen cleaning, which are all performed to attract money from passers-by, as begging is, but are widely regarded as legitimate.
Many justifications have been presented for the criminalisation of begging, including crime prevention and to avoid public annoyance. However these justifications are founded on negative stereotypes of beggars as troublesome, dangerous or lazy, and fail to recognise the underlying social problems that lead to begging. Further, the prosecution of begging imposes a burden on police and the courts, causes vulnerable people to enter the justice system as a result of homelessness and poverty, and does not reduce the number of people who beg.
For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.