In a recent push to suppress an aggressive third wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, the province has already doubled the fines for rule-breakers and seemingly increased policing.
But numbers from the courts show only 12 per cent of fines handed out since the beginning of the pandemic have actually been voluntarily paid.
Halifax-based privacy lawyer David Fraser says he’s not surprised.
“Many people have said, and people I respect lots say, you can’t police your way out of a pandemic. The punitive approach shouldn’t be the first approach and so I prefer obviously the education,” he said.
But at the same time, he says he’s “sympathetic” as a member of the community to the kind of “outrage” people might have about those not adhering to restrictions.
“People should understand kind of the stakes are higher with this new variant, with more people getting sick quicker, younger people getting sick quicker and ending up in hospital,” he said.
“So this is this is serious business. And so it’s it’s understandable that among the tools that they’re using, enforcement is one of them.”
A state of emergency was first declared in the province on March 22, 2020 — which authorized police to enforce orders under the Health Protection Act. That meant that people or businesses that did not practice social distancing, did not properly self-isolate, or defied gathering restrictions, could face a fine.
According to the province, funds from the fines go into general revenue.
At the time, the fine was $1,000 for individuals.
According to the Nova Scotia Courts, 794 tickets were issued summary offence tickets under Sec. 71 of the Health Protection Act between March 28, 2020 and Monday of this week.
So far, 97 of those tickets — or about 12 per cent — have been paid voluntarily.
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A spokesperson from the Nova Scotia Judiciary noted the courts have been extending payment deadlines for summary offence tickets to help reduce the number of people who need to visit a courthouse in person during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, 248 tickets have gone to court. Of those, 78 were dismissed, quashed or withdrawn, two were acquitted and 93 have been sentenced.
Senior Crown Counsel Alex Keaveny says a large number of tickets that are pending before the courts, are awaiting a trial date, but are delayed like many other matters right now. He points out most of the tickets that have been dealt with have resulted in conviction or the person has pleaded guilty.
“A small number of tickets were quashed by the Court, which means there was a fatal error on the ticket itself, for example no date,” he told Global News. “In those cases, the police have the power to issue a new corrected ticket within a year of the offence.”
Fraser says he hopes police and the prosecution service are using discretion when it comes to the tickets — in terms of people who might have legitimate reasons for not following restrictions.
“We have people who don’t have paid sick days and so have to go to work and are working in a frontline position. So even if they’re feeling unwell, they’re violating the health rules by going to work. And so there’s kind of so many different pieces to this that that need to be need to be considered. The easiest thing is to kind of send the cops with their ticket books out. But we also need to understand kind of what’s motivating people,” he said.
And while he does recommend anyone who is fined to take a closer look at their ticket, he warns there’s no “get out of jail free card.”
“Take a close look at it. Is there something wrong with the ticket? Is there something wrong with the circumstances? Is there a legal reason why the ticket should be set aside?” he said.
“But I think my number one advice would be stay home and don’t put yourself in circumstances where that can happen.”
Keaveny agrees, and is hopeful Nova Scotians are getting the message, although it’s possible the courts will see a higher volume of these cases as the third wave continues on.
“Education will always be an important tool, but that really doesn’t apply to someone who chooses to attend a house party during the lockdown, or breaks some other well-known restriction,” he said.
“Those people know better and should expect to be charged.”