Under Australian law, a penalty unit (PU) is an amount of money used as a basis to calculate the monetary penalties and fines for many breaches of laws. To determine the amount to be paid as a fine, the value of the PU is multiplied by the number of PUs that are set for the offence.
Each state and territory, as well as the Commonwealth, has its own PU value. The value, and the way in which, or the frequency with which, the penalty unit value is set differs between the jurisdictions.
Penalty units are a quick and simple way for the legislators to increase the value of a fine to keep pace with inflation or public policy, rather than having to change every law which involves a fine every time the value of a fine is to be varied. It avoids the administrative costs that come with constantly updating legislation with new fine values. Even for those states where the value of the PU is legislated, a change to the value requires only a single amendment.
South Australia is something of an exception to the system of PUs in Australia. In that state, fines are still set in the legislation in dollar terms, rather than in a number of PUs, under each individual law.
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New South Wales Penalty Units
In New South Wales, the value of a PU is set out in the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999, section 17. Because the value is contained in the Act, any change will require an amendment by Parliament, though only to one piece of legislation.
Where most times the maximum penalties for offences are set out in individual laws, in NSW, for offences at common law or by indictment, the penalty is ‘at large’, meaning there is no set maximum, although case law suggests a fine cannot be excessive in the circumstances (see Smith v The Queen (1991) 25 NSWLR 1).
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In Victoria, the value of a PU is updated on 1 July each year by the Department of Treasury and Finance. The authority to do this is in the Monetary Units Act 2004. The Treasurer fixes an annual rate prior to March for the coming financial year. If he or she doesn’t, the previous year’s rate applies. The rate must be published in the Government Gazette and major newspapers.
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The means by which PUs are calculated in Queensland is found in the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992.
The PU value is increased each year by 3.5% unless the Treasurer chooses another amount before 1 March.
When calculating the total fine due:
- for offences enforced through issuing a prescribed infringement notice (PIN), the amount is reduced to the nearest whole dollar amount
- for other offences, if the amount works out not to be a multiple of 5 cents the amount must be reduced to the nearest 5 cent increment.
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Tasmania Penalty Units
PUs in Tasmania are calculated under the Penalty Units and Other Penalties Act 1987.
The value of a PU is adjusted every year based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In the event that calculating the value in accordance with the CPI means the PU value should go down, it will instead stay the same. Its value, and whether or not the value is to be increased, is published in the Gazette before 1 June each year.
When calculating the value of a fine, in the event that the figure is in dollars and cents, the amount is rounded up to the nearest whole dollar.
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Western Australia is also an exception to the general rule for PUs in Australia.
The state sets rates for PUs depending on the legislation under which the offence falls. For road offences, it is set by the Road Traffic (Administration) Act 2008.
To change the PU value, each Act in which a penalty unit is set has to be amended by Parliament.
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In the Northern Territory the law governing the value of a penalty unit is the Penalty Units Act. Under that law, the minimum penalty unit value has been set at $131.00 but this amount may be increased under the Regulations.
The value of a penalty unit is adjusted in accordance with the CPI each financial year. If the new amount includes cents, then the amount is rounded down.
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Australian Capital Territory
In the ACT, PUs are covered by the Legislation Act 2001.
The PU value must be reviewed by the Attorney-General at least once every four years.
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A PU for the Commonwealth applies where a person or company has committed a Commonwealth offence and is fined. Recent amendments to the Crimes Act 1914 mean that the amount of the penalty unit will be automatically adjusted at the same rate as inflation every three years.
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