The State is still owed $26 million in fines for breach of mask regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guardian Media learned that only $1,441,000 of the $27 million-plus expected fines from the tickets issued has ended up in the State’s coffers.
This was revealed by the Judiciary following Freedom of Information requests from Guardian Media.
The Judiciary was responding to a request for the number of fines paid to the State in relation to the violations from September 2020 when the Government first mandated mask-wearing, to July 2022 when the mask mandate came to an end (except for wearing masks in health institutions). Failure to wear a mask came with a penalty of $1,000 per individual.
According to the TTPS, by July 2022, officers had issued 27,664 tickets for failing to wear face masks, generating over $27 million in revenue.
However only a tiny fraction of that money has been paid, the Judiciary admitted.
The reasons for the poor collection of fines are not as cut and dried as some would think, as the blame can easily fall solely on delinquent members of the public.
But, according to information from the Judiciary, the system used to collect the fines–CourtPay–is admittedly confusing and inaccessible to large sections of the population, especially to those without credit cards or bank accounts.
Adding to the confusion during the already traumatic pandemic period, the Judiciary stopped in-person payments of fines at Magistrates’ Courts to avoid close interactions and implemented the new online system.
All the fines paid so far were through this online portal since August 2020.
“The number of public health fines paid to the Judiciary for the period September 2020 to July 31, 2023, is 1,098. The value of Public Health fines paid during the said period is $1,441,000,” the Judiciary added.
Over the past three months, Guardian Media followed up on the fines paid for August, September and November.
The Judiciary’s correspondence said between August 1, 2022, and November 17, 2022, they received a mere 17 public health ticket payments, totalling $23,000. It gave a breakdown of payments for those months. In August, there were only six fines paid, earning the state $7,000. In September, four payments were made totalling $4,000. Four payments were made in October, earning $6,000 and by mid-November, only three payments, amounting to $6,000. In all, it totalled $23,000.
The fines paid in December 2022 are still being tallied.
Asked if any of the matters involving the fines were dismissed after being appealed before a magistrate, Guardian Media learned that, according to the new system, “payment must be made before someone can appeal (challenge) the fine.”
Guardian Media reached out to the Judiciary’s communications unit on the efficacy of the CourtPay system looking at its strengths and weaknesses. Apart from being confusing and inaccessible to members of the public, the Government made a series of changes to the payments of some fines, including multiple extensions to the deadline to pay and reducing the cost by as much as 50 per cent in some cases.
“The continual issuance of payment extensions by Practice Directions may have contributed to the public’s uncertainty around when and how payments should and can be made. Thus, this has the potential to result in unpaid court orders and uncollected revenue arrears,” the Judiciary stated.
They said that their analysis of customer calls and queries show the public was not fully aware of how to make payments since the introduction of CourtPay.
Urgent need for cash vouchers to pay fines, and ads to explain CourtPay to public
The Judiciary said there was an urgent need for the adoption of cash vouchers as an alternative payment option.
“While an approach was made to the Ministry of Finance […] for approval for the use of the CourtPay cash voucher as an alternative to credit card, VISA debit card and cash payments over the counter, the delay in obtaining approval has had a negative impact on the Judiciary’s ability to receive payments,” the report read.
Officials also believe there needs to be a comprehensive communications plan to explain CourtPay to the public. They recommend a “blitz” of advertising on traditional and social media.
“The team recommends the development of an official communications campaign centred on payments and other relevant e-services deemed relevant for mass market awareness and adoption.”
The hope is to have an easy-to-understand, “simplified, customer-centric approach to communications” whereby the Judiciary can effectively educate members of the public about new and upcoming e-services.
CourtPay is for more than public health fines
The public can use CourtPay to pay more than public health fines though. It has been implemented for payments toward court-ordered maintenance and even traffic fines issued before May 20, 2020.
The Judiciary’s records from one year ago (January 2022) showed 94,901 fines were on the system waiting to be paid but only 2.6 per cent or 2,518 of those fines were paid. The lowest payments were for traffic fines. Less than one per cent of traffic fines (218 out of 70,556) were paid, even after the Government offered a 50 per cent discount on the fines.
CourtPay was first conceived in May 2018 when the Judiciary received approval from the Ministry of Finance to open a bank account to facilitate online payments for Court-Ordered Maintenance. That was expanded in May 2019 to open bank accounts for other types of court payments. According to the Judiciary, it went live with the CourtPay e-payment platform on July 1, 2021 “to receive payments for court-ordered fines, motor vehicle traffic tickets issued prior to May 16, 2020, and public health fixed penalty tickets via credit card and VISA-enabled debit cards.”
The Judiciary has also looked inward to the reasons why the number of payments is so low. The most obvious is simple payment evasion.
“Some court customers have opted to delay making a payment even though they have access to either a credit card or VISA-enabled debit card based on the opportunity for deferred payment made available by the issued Practice Directions, although there are clearly defined provisions for making payments,” the Judiciary’s report stated.
However, officials acknowledged that a majority of the “court customers” are only able to make payments in cash.
The Ministry of Trade estimates 19 per cent of the population does not have an account with a financial institution; only 20 per cent of the population has a credit card, and 20 per cent of the population makes online purchases and/or pays bills online.
Dr Teelucksingh recommends a return to N95 mask-wearing
Meanwhile, Dr Joel Teeluckisngh is recommending a return to N95 mask-wearing as there has been a surge of COVID cases in China and the Carnival season is upon us.
A Bloomberg report stated that as many as 248 million people, or nearly 18 per cent of the population, likely contracted the virus in the first 20 days of December, according to minutes from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission.
Dr Teelucksingh, an internal medicine specialist, told Guardian Media last week that it will take more than vaccines to protect citizens during the season.
“The pandemic is far from over and with the explosion, the tsunami of cases in places like North America, Europe and China, we will expect with global travel that Trinidad and Tobago will be no exception,” Dr Teelucksingh said.
He felt that we should consider a return to the use of N-95 masking, “high-quality masks like N-95s if you’re going indoors in those high-risk environments.”
Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh asked if there was a consideration by the Government to reintroduce the wearing of masks beyond healthcare institutions, said “No”. He said, “The wearing of masks is highly recommended as a matter of personal choice, especially by the elderly and immunocompromised.”