A senior Christchurch lawyer says lawyers prevented from entering the city’s courthouse has resulted in hearings taking place without all parties represented.
Grant Tyrrell, who is the New Zealand Law Society Canterbury Westland branch president, says three lawyers have been denied entry into the Christchurch Courthouse by security during the Public Service Assocation (PSA) strike.
The Ministry of Justice has apologised for the actions of security staff and vowed to take “a common sense approach”.
Last week a lawyer for child went to the Christchurch Courthouse for a lunchtime directions conference.
“One of the counsel involved was advised outside court that they were prevented access and couldn’t attend the hearing,” says Mr Tyrrell.
“As I understand it they were advised that the courthouse was closed due to industrial action from midday in advance of the 12.30pm close down which baffles me I have to say.
“The ministry is running court hearings at the same time that Ministry of Justice employees are preventing people from attending the court. The hearing was going ahead so why is the ministry preventing people from attending court, and for that matter what is the authority that the court security is operating under?”
The first incident involved two lawyers, on 11 October. Mr Tyrrell says they arrived at midday for a 12.15pm hearing and security staff told counsel that they would close the courthouse and could not go in.
“Fundamentally, preventing counsel from attending scheduled court hearings is utterly unacceptable. You can’t have one element of the ministry running a court hearing and another preventing anyone from attending,” he says.
Under the Court Securties Act 2009, court security have the authority to deny entry to courts to people who do not comply with a request to give their name and address or who threaten the security of the court, among other areas.
But Mr Tyrrell says such clauses don’t apply here.
“There’s no specific power to deny access into the court building that I can read under there. So they have certain powers over search and even to detain for a period of time, but they don’t, as far as I can see, have statutory powers to prevent access to the court.
“These hearings are going ahead without all parties being represented.”
In his letter to South Island ministry staff, Mr Tyrrell says that the ministry “has a duty to ensure that all participants in Court hearings are able to attend those hearings.”
In response, the ministry’s Regional Security Manager, Christopher House has apologised for the incidents and has promised that staff will take a “common sense” approach from now on.
“I would like to apologise for the incident and any disruption it may have caused,” he says.
“This morning I spoke to the Court Security team with regards to these types of situations. Due to work to rule action, court security are currently closing the doors at 12 o’clock to commence clearing the building by 12:30pm.
“I have instructed the team to take a common sense approach if legal counsel arrive to the door slightly after 12 o’clock to enter the building. It would be preferred to ask legal counsel to arrive to the building before 12 o’clock if it all possible while we work through industrial action.
“These are very testing times where we are most certainly trying to work in a respectful, consistent manner. I reiterated the need for our team to continue in this vain and trust that you shouldn’t experience these issues again. If you do, please let me know.”
The Public Service Association has temporarily suspended lightning strikes at the courts, although the work to rule remains in place.