Penalty units (WA)
A penalty unit is a measurement used to determine the amount of a fine for an offence. The value of the unit is multiplied by the number of units set for the offence by the legislation.
The use of a penalty unit is more efficient than a monetary amount given that fine amounts are constantly changing with inflation and public policy. It avoids the time and administrative costs of amending legislation.
Most jurisdictions have a statutory mechanism for periodic review and adjustment of the value of a penalty unit in line with inflation. However, Western Australia is an exception. The state sets rates for units depending on the legislation under which the offence falls. For road offences it is $50 but for other offences it can be up to $163. To change the unit value, each Act in which a penalty unit is set must be amended by parliament.
Criticism of WA’s approach to penalty units
In a 2019 review of penalties under the Road Traffic Code 2000, the Road Safety Commission recommended the State Government consider reviewing the value of a penalty unit under the Code. It found fines in WA to be significantly lower than other jurisdictions and the national average, in some cases less than a quarter of the equivalent offence in other jurisdictions.
Section 8 of the Road Traffic (Administration) Act 2008 provides that the dollar value of a fine is determined by multiplying the number of penalty units by 50. A penalty unit was set at $50 when the use of the unit was introduced in 1997 and has remained unchanged. In other jurisdictions, the value of a penalty unit has risen in line with inflation. For example, since 2011-2012, the value of a unit in Victoria has risen 31%, and in Queensland by 30%. The Commission pointed out that via periodic adjustment of units, other jurisdictions had been able to maintain the deterrent effect of fines, and that the disparity in fines for equivalent offences between jurisdictions would continue to magnify unless WA adopted periodic adjustment.
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