What is a Penalty Unit in the Law?

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If you’re ever been charged with a criminal offence, one of the first questions you might ask is ‘what penalty am I facing?’

Most crimes in Australia carry a fine of some description as a possible penalty; and in most states and territories, fines are calculated in increments known as ‘penalty units.’

But did you know that penalty units differ between the states and territories?

What’s more, similar offences across the nation can give rise to different penalty units – meaning that someone convicted of an offence in one part of Australia could cop a much bigger fine than a person convicted of the same conduct elsewhere.

Which begs the question – are penalty units unfair?

The Rationale Behind Penalty Units

You might be wondering why penalty units are used at all. Surely it would be much easier to simply state the maximum fine for an offence in a dollar amount?

Not necessarily so.

Many years ago, fines were set out in whole dollar amounts. But inflation effectively meant that fines which were once considered substantial eventually became redundant.

To avoid the administrative costs associated with constantly updating legislation with new fines, penalty units were introduced as a means of easily adjusting fines in line with inflation.

Today, most states set the value of their own penalty units. This value is then multiplied by the specified penalty units for an offence to give the maximum fine for that offence.

For instance, the value of a penalty unit is set at $110 in NSW. The offence of ‘offensive language’ carries a maximum penalty of 6 penalty units. The maximum fine for this offence is therefore 6 x $110 = $660.

Most jurisdictions will review the value of penalty units every few years – for example, the value of a penalty unit for a Commonwealth offence is reviewed every three years and adjusted accordingly.

Differences in Penalty Units Around Australia

Notably, the value of penalty units differs between the various states and territories.

A penalty unit in Queensland is set at $113.85, whilst it is $149 in the Northern Territory. The Victorian figure is currently $147.61, but is set to rise to $151.67 in the next financial year. Commonwealth penalty units are the highest, at $170.

Western Australia does not have standardised penalty units – they differ depending on the legislation in question.

South Australia does not have penalty units at all – rather, fines are set by reference to the maximum term of imprisonment. For example, an offence such as “riot” which carries a maximum prison sentence of 7 years will have a set maximum penalty of $30,000.

The practical effect of these differences is that fines for similar offences can vary substantially between the states and territories.

Differences in Penalties for Similar Offences

To add another layer of inconsistency, the maximum penalty units for similar offences can vary greatly across the nation.

For instance, the maximum number of penalty units that apply for the offence of ‘possessing a graffiti implement’ in Queensland is 20 penalty units. This equates to a maximum fine of $2,277.

Meanwhile in New South Wales, the maximum number of penalty units for the offence is 10 penalty units – or a fine of $1,100 – less than half that of the maximum fine Queensland.

And in South Australia, the maximum fine for drink spiking equates to $15,000, while in New South Wales it is just $11,000.

This means that the penalty you could face for the same act may differ depending on where you are in Australia.

Should There be a Standardised Australian Penalty Unit?

Given the disparity between fines across Australia, it seems logical that a quick-fix solution would be to impose a standardised penalty unit for all jurisdictions.

But perhaps surprisingly, there have been no recent moves to implement such a change. So it seems that for the time being at least, significant differences in maximum fines will continue to exist across Australia.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Traffic Defence Lawyers.

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