Nearly $14 million in managed isolation expenses recovered by debt collectors

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Collection agencies have been used to recover nearly $14million in unpaid bills for managed isolation and quarantine, but a High Court lawyer says people may have a legal right to refuse to pay.

Figures provided by the Department of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) under the Official Information Act show that MBIE spent US$1.74 million on collection agencies between July 2020 and May 2022, up US$13.849 million collect on unpaid bills.

Tudor Clee, a barrister and High Court advocate who has taken on previous MIQ cases, believed those who received a call from debt collectors would have a strong legal basis to refuse to pay.

The MIQ system was controversial but was seen as necessary to keep Covid-19 out.

DELIVERED

The MIQ system was controversial but was seen as necessary to keep Covid-19 out.

“If it’s a commercial contract that’s enforceable by collection agencies, I suppose people have a right to say I didn’t pay for it,” he said.

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He pointed to cases of bugs in MIQ rooms or others without curtains, which clearly fell short of the standard people should accept. If that happens in a hotel or on vacation, people could rightly argue that it wasn’t what they paid for.

Then there were those who had caught Covid-19 in the MIQ and could argue that the MIQ had failed in its job of protecting them, he said.

Lawyer Tudor Clee, pictured with partner Giota Kalogirou in 2020, believed people were right to question paying the MIQ bills.

David White/Stuff

Lawyer Tudor Clee, pictured with partner Giota Kalogirou in 2020, believed people were right to question paying the MIQ bills.

The MIQ system has been among the most controversial aspects of New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly after the introduction of the virtual lobby system, which meant returning Kiwis had to try their luck – some multiple times – in order to win a seat to serve isolation upon return home.

A High Court decision in April found that the allocations for the managed isolation scheme were a lottery that did not give enough weight to personal circumstances between September and December 2021.

Roger Mitchell of Levin conducted his MIQ in June 2021 at Auckland’s Waipuna Hotel and Conference Center in what he described as a dingy and bug-infested room.

Roger Mitchell never paid for MIQ, despite what appeared to be collection emails.

DAVID UNWIN/stuff

Roger Mitchell never paid for MIQ, despite what appeared to be collection emails.

He said he wasn’t told he had to pay MIQ until he received a $3100 bill after checking out.

He received two emails from what appeared to be collection agencies but didn’t open them, then received a third email telling him to ignore the previous emails.

He never paid for his MIQ stay and felt that others who went through similar stays should be fired as well.

Shayne Gray, MIQ’s general manager of service quality and assurance, said in mid-May that 58,228 invoices totaling $219.8 million were issued for MIQ.

Of that, $20.8 million was not yet due, $37.5 million was now due and $161 million was paid.”

After 30 days, MBIE used external collection agencies to “provide returnees with flexible, consistent, and efficient options to help them meet their obligations in paying for their MIQ stay.”

“If an invoice is still overdue after 90 days, we would try to pass the debt on to traditional collection agencies. They use the tools at their disposal to try to find the person who was billed and then demand payment of the debt.”

Martin Riley, who went through MIQ twice after visiting his elderly mother in the UK, paid $3,200 for his first two-week visit, then $1,600 for a second week-long stay and said it was money he was happy to pay.

“If they don’t pay, they should be asked to pay,” he said.

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