Court case challenges some COVID fines

·3-min read

While thousands gathered at NSW football matches and horse racing events others outdoors in a group of 30 were fined for politically protesting and threatened with jail time under public health orders.

A NSW Supreme Court test case has taken on two of some 40 people fined in breach of those specific public health orders that prevented public gatherings of more than 20 people, bar some exceptions.

Chad Stratton was fined in Sydney's Domain during a Black Lives Matter protest on July 28, 2020.

Ruby Pandolfi was arrested on October 10, 2020 during a protest against One Nation MP Mark Latham's proposal "widely referred to as the Trans Erasure Bill," the court was told on Thursday.

The public health orders were amended in December to allow for peaceful, socially distanced protests of up to 500 people.

"Unfortunately too late for my clients," Shane Prince SC said in his opening address.

Mr Prince said the list of exceptions in these particular health orders "tell you a lot about what the government priorities were in exercising these powers".

Video footage of cheering crowds at a Rabbitohs NRL game was played to the court followed by images of racing punters embracing at The Everest, both events just days after the protesters were fined.

"Nobody likes to be criticised, including government, including executives ...that is why the constitutional guarantee (of political communication) is so important," Mr Prince said.

"Political discourse and protest and dissent is almost always directed at the executive government ... in the position to apply and enact these laws."

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University in Victoria agreed under cross-examination by Michael Sexton SC, that organised events included registration for contact-tracing purposes and seating plans.

But Prof Bennett said an outdoor transmission had not been recorded before 2021, and the fact people were sitting for longer periods of time in one spot meant the risk of infection was potentially higher.

Dr Jeremy McAnulty from the NSW Ministry of Health said the risk of transmission at unstructured events was concerning at the time.

"It just takes one person with COVID-19 to cough in your face," he said.

"The concern was authorities could not identify everyone at such an event or contract trace if this occurred."

At the time people were not required to purchase a ticket to enter supermarkets or attend community sporting events.

Prof Bennett said the greatest challenge with large gatherings was the interaction before and after the event such as tunnels leading to a stadium.

Outside court protest organiser Paddy Gibson, who was also fined during the Black Lives Matter rally, said the laws were draconian and targeted at protesters raising critical issues such as deaths in custody of First Nations peoples.

Greens MP Abigail Boyd also showed her support saying NSW Labor were in "lockstep" with the state government and enjoyed the idea of having such powers if elected.

Joshua Lees from Newtown said he attended a protest at Sydney University along with about 30 people, all masked, when police gave the orders to disperse.

"It was as we were leaving that the police came and grabbed a couple of us and fined us for the protest," he told AAP.

"This wasn't about COVID. This is an excuse to clamp down and intimidate, and beef up their own repressive powers against protesters."

Adam Adelpour was detained overnight and threatened with six-months' jail after attending the same protest, while he says there were more people gathered inside a classroom at the time.

"You can see the absurdity and the double standards," he told AAP.

Dozens of others fined at similar events have had their local court cases pushed back awaiting the result of the Supreme Court challenge.