22 Jun 2022

Hipkins urged to apologise to all pregnant women ignored by MIQ as new case emerges

6:41 pm on 22 June 2022

As Chris Hipkins apologises to Charlotte Bellis for comments about her MIQ application, it can be revealed the government spent nearly $43,000 fighting another pregnancy-related MIQ case in court.

Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The case, involving Auckland woman Roshni Sami, was abandoned days before it was due to be heard, when MBIE reversed its decision and granted her husband emergency MIQ allocation.

It was one of at least seven similar judicial reviews, and data shows MBIE spent at least $25,000 more on the other cases in following months.

Sami and her husband Walter Spears had been trying to secure an MIQ voucher so he could return from the United States before she gave birth in December.

Having had no luck in the voucher lotteries, she said they applied for emergency allocation and were declined.

Sami lodged a second application for emergency allocation and then took her case to the High Court, seeking a judicial review of the decision.

Her lawyer, Tudor Clee, explained the case was due before the court on 26 October. But on 22 October, the last business day before it was to be heard, Sami and Spears received an email saying he had been granted emergency allocation.

Sami said it was unclear why, given the first one was rejected and their circumstances had not changed.

Data provided to Clee, under the Official Information Act, now shows MBIE spent $42,932.66 preparing for the hearing.

In its response to Clee, MBIE explained the matter cost more because it was dealt with urgently.

"If a proceeding has to be dealt with in an urgent timeframe, Crown Law has less ability to have work carried out by counsel with a lesser charge-out rate. More work ends up being done by senior counsel at higher charge-out rates as they need to supervise more closely the development of evidence and submissions to ensure that the best case is put before the Court."

However, Sami said the government could have spent its thousands of dollars making a more fair MIQ system that gave pregnant women a chance to access emergency allocation.

"The policy was so badly written that it couldn't accommodate pregnancy. The people that implemented it were very unsympathetic and did not have an understanding of the risks of pregnancy. At any moment, an emergency can happen. You need your family," she said.

Sami was one of 229 people who applied for emergency MIQ allocation between October 2020 and October 2021 and mentioned "pregnancy" as their reason.

By October 2021 just 23 of those applications had been approved.

Many of those rejected sought legal help, including 35 couples who were represented by Clee - of which seven filed judicial reviews in court.

Clee said four of those who filed had their emergency allocations granted immediately prior to the hearing, like Sami.

Two managed to secure lottery spots during the proceedings, and one ran out of time before the hearing and gave birth alone, prematurely, in hospital in Australia.

Tudor Clee had also sought the legal bills for those cases in his OIA request.

One came to a total of $3905, while MBIE did "not hold separate invoices on the other cases", it said.

Instead, it provided legal costs incurred on Pregnancy-Related Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) Judicial Reviews for the following three months, which totalled another $21,878.

Today, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins apologised for comments he made about journalist Charlotte Bellis case, and said her MIQ application was deactivated in error.

Sami said the apology needed to go a lot further.

"My experience and the experience of all the women that went through this was that we were soundly ignored. We've never had a substantial response on the complaints that we've made, or the issues that I raised," she said.

"And it's not just us. All the families that have really suffered, people that have lost their life savings, people that have basically been made into refugees in other countries because they couldn't extend their visas ... all those people need an apology."

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Asked how the $43,000 cost was justified, MBIE provided a written response. It said: "When a proceeding is commenced the Crown takes the steps considered necessary to defend the decision".

MIQ head Andy Milne reiterated that it had been dealt with in an urgent timeframe, and that usually meant higher charge-out rates.

"Ms Sami's request that her application for interim relief dated Monday 18 October be dealt with urgently, resulted in the High Court dealing with the application in a case management conference on Wednesday 20 October, and scheduling the hearing of the application on Tuesday 26 October; with Ms Sami's evidence and submissions to be filed by Friday 22 October; and the Crown's by Monday 24 October (Labour Day)," he said.

"On 24 October the Court and the Crown were informed that Mr Spears had arrived back in New Zealand; but Ms Sami still required the Tuesday 26 October hearing. In response the Crown filed an application and supporting evidence seeking to strike out the proceeding as the relief sought had been obtained, so the proceeding was moot and had no utility."

He said Spears had earlier applied for emergency allocation using category 2a "to urgently return to New Zealand to provide critical care for a dependent".

"His application was declined because the delegated decision makers did not consider that, with the information he provided, he met the criteria for urgent travel to provide critical care for his wife - Mrs Spears is in New Zealand and has access to medical attention should her pregnancy require urgent medical care."

Milne said previously declined applicants may be approved if they provided further evidence in support of their application - and that had happened with Spears.

"That application was considered by the MBIE decisionmaker on 22 October; it was determined that with this additional information, Mr Spears now met the threshold for approval. Mr Spears was notified that same day that he had been manually allocated a voucher for MIQ. On 24 October the Court and the Crown were informed that Mr Spears had arrived back in New Zealand."

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