Inside myki court, where fare evaders challenge their fines – and often succeed

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If you’ve ever been fined for riding on public transport without a ticket, you may have felt the same righteous urge as Connor Minervini.

The 27-year-old from Brunswick, who works in the music industry, did what plenty of people have thought about and stood up in court to challenge the decision, believing he had been unfairly treated.

Brunswick man Connor Minervini appealed his fare evasion fine to the Magistrates’ Court.Credit: Justin McManus

Every Thursday from 2pm, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court conducts hearings for people who are trying to get out of paying a Department of Transport infringement notice.

For those who appeal their fine, there’s a decent chance of success – but you have to provide a convincing reason for not having a ticket. If you fail to turn up, you’ll have your case heard ex parte (a Latin term that means without everyone present) and have the fine upheld.

The wheels of justice turn slowly at myki court, as those who appear are often asked to recount the events of a day that happened over 12 months ago.

“It’s been funny to have to revisit the day because it was a pretty mundane situation really,” Minervini told The Age outside court last week after appealing his $277 fine from October last year.

“I got on an Anstey Station [in Brunswick]. I tried to top up, it was being a bit finicky. The train came, so I got on hoping when I’d get off I could speak to someone and just kind of pay a fee [for the trip].

“I was never ever intending to not pay it. So yeah, I ended up getting fined.”

Interacting with the law like this can be a strange, even intimidating experience. The Magistrates’ Court is where all criminal cases begin, regardless of the alleged offence.

The courtroom looks just like any other. There’s a bar table in the middle of the room, a clerk organising each case and a judicial officer on the bench making rulings.

Commuters at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne.Credit: Paul Rovere

A lawyer argues on behalf of the department to recover any “loss to the network”. In the myki criminal justice system, there are two separate groups: the ticket inspectors, who hand out fines, and these prosecutors.

Usually, the cases are over in rapid succession, often taking less than 10 minutes each.

Interacting with the justice system like this can be a strange, even intimidating experience.Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen

Unless they face other more serious charges, everyone is self-represented. It is a relatively casual affair. Some people have dressed up; others are wearing T-shirts. Almost everyone is young.

Each appeal unfolds the same way: the charge is read out; a plea is entered; and a summary of the offence, compiled by the ticket inspectors, is read out.

Then the accused (as they are known in court) get their chance to speak.

There’s the 19-year-old man who left his myki at home and took the bus without tapping on. He was stopped by ticket inspectors in Footscray and issued with a $277 infringement.

He appeared in court with his dad and said his myki had funds on it at the time.

“I’ve been using that bus line for six years, I fully intended to pay,” he said.

After he pleaded guilty, judicial registrar Lisa Rees dismissed the fine without conviction, saying the man had treated the matter seriously.

Golding’s view.Credit: Matt Golding

In another case, a university student forgot his wallet and needed to get home from Flinders Street Station. He spoke to staff at the barriers, who let him through.

When he got to Gardiner Station in Glen Iris, ticket inspectors asked him for his myki. The department can choose to issue a warning, but didn’t in his case.

“I was trying to follow their advice,” he told the court. “I thought I was in the right.”

After hearing the prosecution summary, the student considered pleading not guilty. He was informed that would lead to a contested hearing, with evidence and submissions.

With Rees’ direction, he pleaded guilty and had his fine struck out. “Ensure you’ve got a myki card in future,” Rees told him.

A 20-year-old woman was running late for the train and said she tried to tap on at Glenferrie Station but didn’t see the card reader turn red in her rush to the doors.

“I have records to show I always tap on,” she told the court. Her fine was also waived.

Connor Minervini had his fine reduced from $277 to $100 when he went to court.Credit: Justin McManus

As they wait their turn, everyone sits in the back of the court and listens as those before them explain why they are challenging their fine. Any prior offences are taken into account.

It’s not a foolproof method of beating a fine. A rotating list of judicial registrars sit and hear the challenges, filling in for magistrates on minor matters like this.

The Age observed two weeks of fare evasion appeals. On the second week, judicial registrar Sivaratnam Kandasamy didn’t set aside anyone’s myki fines. The best they could hope for was a reduction.

One of those was Minervini, who pled guilty to fare evasion and told his story about trying to pay for the trip at Flinders Street Station after his ride was over.

“I was never evading it, I was pursuing it,” he told the court. “I thought the $277 was a little bit stiff.”

Kandasamy told Minervini to ensure he always topped up his myki and cut the fine to $100. Those who explained they were about to miss their train did not have success avoiding their fines.

“Everyone comes in today and says they are rushing to work,” Kandasamy told another defendant. “I can’t accept that as a reason not to top up.”

Everyone who appeared in court on the days The Age visited had their fines either waived or reduced.

While anyone has the option to do it, only a small number of people who are fined elect to go to court. A total of 608 passengers challenged their fines in 2022, according to the Department of Transport and Planning.

According to the Sentencing Advisory Council of Victoria, 33 per cent of people who appeared before the Magistrates’ Court on fare evasion charges between 2018 and 2021 and had the fine dismissed.

The government said $17.4 million was lost due to fare evasion in the past financial year. A department spokesperson said more warnings than infringements had been issued on the public transport system during that period.

“But fare evasion will not be tolerated, especially from repeat offenders who place a burden on the network,” they said.

This year, fare evasion fines were increased to $288.

April Voigt, senior lawyer in the youth team at community legal service Westjustice, said going to court carried the risk of a conviction, which would lead to a criminal record.

She advises people to seek an internal review from the department as a first step, particularly if there are special circumstances such as family violence, mental illness or homelessness.

“I always say to young people who come in, take action early because delay can result in fees being accrued, and you have less options to deal with the fines later,” she said.

Public Transport Users Association spokesman Daniel Bowen said the public transport system didn’t always make it easy to pay the proper fare.

“The long-awaited option to pay your fare using a bank card will help a lot with these issues, and will be very welcome,” he said.

As for those who elect to have their day in court, Minervini said his result of a $100 fine was better than nothing.

“I’m still a little bit disappointed,” he said. “I wish it was just thrown out, but that’s all right. That’s just what it is.”

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