The Department of Justice and Public Safety won't disclose the cost of enforcement and legal fees associated with the COVID rule-breaking case of pastor Philip Hutchings and his Saint John church, even though "overextended resources" was one reason why the Crown sought a new consent order before the court last Friday.
The new order, signed by Hutchings, grants enforcement officers access to any service held by the pastor of His Tabernacle Family Church to monitor whether the church is "reasonably" complying with the province's COVID-19 mandatory order.
Hutchings must provide 24-hour notice before a gathering at a different church venue than 348 Rockland St., including at a different time from the regularly scheduled Sunday service. He must also refrain from encouraging the harassment of public or government officials, reads the new order.
During Friday's hearing, Crown attorney Jason Caissie said the conditions in the new consent order would allow Public Safety to deploy two officers instead of 10, to ensure compliance because the department had "already overextended resources."
This will "ensure (Hutchings is) able to have this service, and we're able to monitor it to ensure people are being safe," the Crown told the court.
When asked about the exact cost of enforcement and legal expenses to date, department spokesperson Shawn Berry said because the matter is before the courts, the department cannot provide more specifics.
"We can say that all enforcement work and all legal work was done by employees, already on the payroll," Berry wrote in an email.
"Measures have been taken regarding gatherings of people without proof of vaccination because they’re a threat to public health and the continuity of our health system."
Since the Government of New Brunswick declared a state of emergency on Sept. 24, Berry said four tickets have been issued for roughly $480 each across the province.
Four matters have also been referred to the Office of the Attorney General for prosecution. In certain circumstances, a judge may issue a fine to an amount not exceeding $20,400, said Berry.
Cara Zwibel, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said rules exist for not publicizing certain matters that are before the court. However, not disclosing the costs, in this case, isn't one.
"I don't think this particular piece of information needs to be sheltered from disclosure," Zwibel said. "The fact that it is still before the court is not a good justification for not disclosing that information."
Basil Alexander, an assistant professor with the faculty of law at the University of New Brunswick, said the new order can be seen as a more serious requirement from the province after the pastor flouted the first consent order.
"The first thing, before this all started, is kind of like: Here's the COVID order that people are supposed to comply with. OK, you haven't complied with that, we now go to the court order. OK, we're now having issues with that, we now move up to a more restrictive order," Alexander explained.
"It's kind of the idea of is there a point to send more officers rather than just one or two? And I think it is pretty self-evident there is going to be a saving of resources and time."
Whether the department should make the cost public is a policy issue, added Alexander.
"There could be reasons why they aren't. It could be the question of they don't want to disclose that here's the number of people they have or where they might need to cover people in different spots," he said.
Hutchings, who was jailed for a week on accusations he had ignored a consent order he signed on Oct. 8, was released last Friday. He apologized and admitted he had been in contempt of court, but in order to be released, the pastor had to sign a new order from the Crown and undertaking provided by Justice Hugh McLellan.
Per the undertaking, Hutchings agreed that he: understood the COVID-19 regulations protect organizations and leaders from negligence charges; promised to make all reasonable efforts to comply with the regulation and not obstruct peace officers; understood that breaching the regulations could cause death or bodily harm and result in several serious consequences; and made an irrevocable consent that the undertaking may be used against him as evidence in court and the undertaking may be broadcast or shared by anyone, anytime.
Hutchings is due back in court Friday at 2 p.m., along with his wife and two directors of the church corporation.
- With files from Mike Landry
Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal