Senior lawyers say the court strike by members of the Public Service Association (PSA) needs to be resolved as soon as possible – primarily for the sake of the people in the court system.
A work-to-rule over pay has been in force since mid-September and the PSA has upped the stakes with strikes taking place with as little as 30 minutes notice.
The Employment Court in Auckland has ruled in favour of the lawfulness of the lightning strike action that Public Service Association members have been taking in recent weeks.
Napier barrister and President of the Hawke’s Bay branch of the New Zealand Law Society Maria Hamilton says the situation needs to be resolved for clients’ sake.
“We hope this can be resolved as soon as possible. It impacts on the lawyers’ work but the concern I guess is more the impact on clients. We go about our business and stuff gets done or it doesn’t but from the clients’ point of view it really does matter.”
Safety concerns for vulnerable clients
Ms Hamilton fears there could be some serious consequences due to the inability for some cases to be progressed.
“This very morning a couple of without-notice protection order applications were filed by this office, and they were at the upper end of the scale of violence. We have just heard that those applications may not be dealt with today because of the industrial action so that does have potential serious safety consequences.
“We have really dedicated registrars and the court staff are very focused on providing a good service to court users. So we are well served and perhaps because of that while there have been some disruption the court staff have been really good at minimising the impact of that on the lawyers and the court users.”
Ms Hamilton says lawyers have told her that they were only told of the strike as they walked into the court and that hearing time has been lost resulting in judge-alone trials being adjourned, delays for matters to be resolved, and more appearances for clients.
“I have some sympathy for court staff and the feeling among lawyers is that they really rate our court staff who do the best that they can. The matter needs to be resolved promptly.”
Renee Smith, Acting Group Manager Courts and Tribunals at the Ministry of Justice says that urgent matters are still being dealt with.
"Without notice protection orders are considered electronically by judges assigned to e-duty throughout New Zealand. Approved applications are given high priority and are still being promptly processed by the Ministry," she says.
Held in custody longer than necessary
Christchurch barrister Craig Ruane, a member of the New Zealand Law Society courthouse committee, says the industrial action is having an impact on justice in the city.
“It’s probably causing more inconvenience to clients than lawyers because of the work that is being interrupted and the delays that are being caused as the court staff take breaks at the times that are mandated to them, and the court continues to take breaks at the usual times, so we’re probably losing about an hour or more a day of court time.
“There have been instances where sittings have been cancelled and people have had to come back at another time, and there have been instances where people have been held in custody overnight or for a couple of days because their case hasn’t been able to be reached and that raises serious concerns.
“There may be people whose bail applications might otherwise have been dealt with but have remained in custody longer than they should have done. To be fair the judges have gone out of their way to accommodate this but the court lists in Christchurch are pretty full anyway, particularly the list courts and if you’re losing an hour or so a day out of that it increases the pressure on those lists.
“The stakeholders are not being told what is going on and both the ministry and the PSA are guilty of this because we, as users of the court, don’t know how this is likely to continue. It’s just frankly become annoying, without going into the merits or otherwise of the claim, I don’t know enough about them to say if they are right or not.
“I don’t know how it is going to be resolved, but it does need to be sorted out.”
New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck is hopeful a resolution can be reached in the near future.
“The efficient functioning of the courts is crucial to our justice system and the Law Society hopes that the parties will come to a mutually acceptable agreement as soon as possible.”