14 Nov 2018

More disruptions as court staff strikes ramp up

1:07 pm on 14 November 2018

Court staff around the country are stepping up industrial action, as a top judge warns that the disruption and delays could cause a miscarriage of justice.

Signage outside the Auckland District Court

Court staff workers are pushing the Ministry of Justice for better pay and conditions. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The pay dispute has been dragging on for two months as workers push the Ministry of Justice for better pay and conditions.

As the sitting hours in courts are slashed, a backlog of bail applications, sentencings and trials is building in courts across the country.

More than 2000 Public Service Association (PSA) members are working to rule and periodically walking off the job over stalled negotiations with the Ministry of Justice.

The court staff action is set to ramp up at two Auckland courts with staff enforcing a ban on handling sentencing papers.

That means all sentencing scheduled this week in the Manukau District Court and the Auckland District Court has been cancelled.

It's that sort of disruption that has the chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue worried about the potential for a miscarriage of justice.

"I have a difficult balancing act and my response to this is to what areas of work do I give priority? Somebody who is in custody awaiting a sentence? Or someone who is a complainent in a jury trial who has waited six to nine months to get that jury trial?"

Judge Doogue said the longer the delays went on, the more difficult it would be for courts to catch up.

Court worker Iris Bush is also worried about the real risks attached to strike action.

However, she said they had no choice because the ministry stonewalled them at every turn.

"We dislike taking this action but I think it's indicitive of how bad it is that everyone, after months and months of trying to get decent negotiations and a fair offer, we are still prepared to take the action that we so genuinely do not want to take."

Ms Bush has worked at the North Shore District Court for 12 years, transcribing at times complex live proceedings with almost perfect accuracy.

The ministry was devaluing that specialised work by bumping the mid salary rate down from $51,000 to $44,000 - $1000 less than it was in 2007.

"It's actually really, really insulting to us. It's an incredibly technical job. We start with a basic requirement of 70 to 80 words per minute typing, excellent grammar, excellent spelling, excellent knowledge of all kinds of fields. And that's just us starting out."

An Auckland defence lawyer Maria Pecotic sympathised with striking staff and said the courts could not function without them.

"It is a very difficult job to do, you're having to deal with quite a lot of cases, quite a lot of people, and some serious matters, and people should be remunerated for the work that they do."

Some of the disruption includes shutting down the video links that that allow inmates to appear from prison.

Judge Doogue said in one case that could mean a family court hearing could be delayed until late next year because of difficulties getting witnesses from overseas.

PSA national secretary Glenn Barclay said staff were equally concerned about the delays and had hoped for a speedier resolution.

He said he was heartened by lawyers' support for the workers.

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