A University of Wollongong law academic says alcohol-free zones are "unnecessary and confusing" and, in many places across the region, are signposted to mislead people into thinking they can be fined.
Senior lecturer Dr Julia Quilter, an expert in the legal issues surrounding alcohol enforcement, raised her concerns after hearing about Wollongong City Council's plans to re-create seven alcohol-free zones.
"There does appear to be a lot of confusion, both from the public and from police, about the fact that you can be fined for drinking."
Last week, Wollongong Police crime manager Joe Thone told the Mercury the zones gave police powers to "dispose of the alcohol and issue warnings or give [drinkers] a fine".
However, Dr Quilter explained fines for public drinking in the zones were removed in 2008, leaving police and council rangers with only the ability to tip out and confiscate alcohol.
The same rules apply in alcohol-prohibited areas which cover parks and beaches, meaning signs stating residents can be fined up to $500 around Wollongong Harbour are misleading.
"There is no power to fine somebody, per se, for drinking in public," Dr Quilter said.
"There are other related powers, say if a police officer gives a direction to do something and then they don't do it, they can fine them for that.
"But they can't fine them for being in breach of the alcohol-prohibited area or alcohol-free zone."
This made the zones unnecessary, she said, as they did not increase police officers' ability to target antisocial and nuisance behaviour beyond powers which already existed, even without the zones.
"It's a blanket prohibition that is really unnecessary, because if they want to deal with problem behaviour - which is what the zones seem to be there for - then they can't use these zones to deal with that anyway," she said.
• In alcohol-free zones and prohibited areas, police and council rangers have the power to confiscate or tip out alcohol. People cannot be fined for simply drinking or having alcohol in the area, as some Wollongong City Council signs indicate.
• If a person does not co-operate with a request to hand over alcohol in these zones, they can be charged with obstruction under the Local Government Act, which carries a maximum penalty of $2200.
• Police can detain someone who is intoxicated in public regardless of whether there is an prohibition zone in place.
• Police can also give intoxicated people a direction to move on and a failure to comply can be an offence. In some cases, police can issue on-the-spot fines of $1100 under the NSW Summary Offences Act.