Strikes keeping people in custody - lawyer

Industrial action by Ministry of Justice staff is affecting the running of the court system, and leading to people being held in custody who would otherwise be granted bail.

On Wednesday, court staff went on a half-day nationwide strike, following seven weeks of industrial action, which included rolling lightning strikes, work-to-rule and no overtime.

About 2500 Ministry of Justice workers are members of the Public Service Association (PSA), and walked off the job. Union workers include court reporters, security officers, registry officers, victim advisors, Family Court co-ordinators, workers at the ministry’s head office, and in specific courts like the Māori Land Court.

Criminal Bar Association president Len Andersen said the biggest concern was some people were being kept in custody who shouldn’t be there.

Ministry of Justice staff processed bail applications but when they weren’t processed, people could not be granted bail.

“The pressing concern is people unnecessarily being held in custody,” Andersen said.

The Criminal Bar Association has written to the PSA to see whether an interim measure, or emergency team, could be put in place to allow the processing of bail applications to continue.

New Zealand’s prison population currently sits about 10,000 - give or take - on any given day, down from a peak of 10,820 earlier in the year. Part of the rise in the prison population over recent years has been attributed to a steady rise in prisoners remanded in custody.

This is something Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and the Department of Corrections has been working to change, by making bail applications more accessible.

However, there was a chance the remand population could be increased as a result of the industrial action, Andersen said.

Prison population figures held by Corrections fluctuated daily based on things like arrests, and no data is specifically held on how industrial action at the Ministry of Justice has affected the remand population.

Andersen said the action had also resulted in a range of other disruptions to court cases and scheduling.

It meant cases were being put off, and courts had to prioritise which cases to hear in the limited amount of time they had. That often meant hearing cases that would take less time, and putting off longer cases.

At the moment, courts were running with less than half the sitting hours they usually would, he said.

In places where there were jury trials, and the court buildings were locked to the public during the lunch break, there was the risk of jury members mingling with witnesses and defendants outside.

“So far as lawyers are concerned, there is general support that they are very much underpaid, but the real concern is people unnecessarily being held in custody," Andersen said.

Collective bargaining began in May but reached an impasse, with Ministry of Justice staff refusing to accept anything below a 2 percent base salary increase, while the ministry was offering 1 percent.

PSA assistant secretary Basil Prestidge said this was sending a disappointing signal that the importance of ministry staff to the future success of the justice system was not being valued.

“The cost and other impacts to the justice system aren’t being taken into account but by our estimates it soon runs up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

While there was currently no verified monetary cost, estimates ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars, to as much as $1 million for each week of action, he said.

The Ministry of Justice did not currently have data on the cost or number of cases disrupted.

PSA spokesman Stephen Olsen said there were a host of issues, including the gender pay gap, with women making up the bulk of court reporters, but new court reporters would start on less pay than the current base salary, under the proposed offer.

Meanwhile, current proposed legislation would see security officers’ powers and responsibilities extended, but without a reflective increase in pay.

The strikes come as the Government touts widespread justice reforms.

“They’re not going to be very robust reforms if they undermine their workforce,” Olsen said.

Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said "the situation remains fluid", and the ministry was doing its best to manage the impact on its customers and its people.

“The ministry remains open and committed to reaching a negotiated settlement and we’re ready to meet with the PSA at any time.”

Earlier this week, the ministry lost a bid to halt the strike action.

The Employment Court denied the ministry’s application for an interim injunction.

At the time of filing the injunction, Ministry of Justice chief executive Andrew Bridgman told New Zealand Law Society they felt they had no choice.

"The health and safety of everyone who works in or visits New Zealand’s courthouses is our highest priority. We consider the PSA’s decision to strike with only 30 minutes notice at crowded and busy courts to be unlawful, unsafe and irresponsible.

“We will do everything we can to protect everyone working in or visiting our courthouses.”

The ministry and staff had a similar dispute in 2010 during collective bargaining, which also dragged out for months.

But Andersen said the current situation was much worse.

“This is very effective industrial action in terms of creating disruption and hardship,” he said.

Acting Justice Minister Stuart Nash said the strikes were “unfortunate”.

"Ideally you’d like them over before they even get to strike action, there’s no doubt about that – especially at a time when we’re trying to move people through the court system.

“But again they’re legally entitled to strike, they’re in the middle of negotiations at the moment, let’s hope both sides get around the table and come to a satisfactory conclusion before too long,” Nash said.

The strike comes as primary school teachers and principals enter mediation, ahead of rolling strikes scheduled to begin next week. Meanwhile, secondary school teachers and principals have rejected the Ministry of Education's second official offer, and will vote on their next steps during nationwide meetings.

These strikes come after the nurses' strike earlier in the year, which was followed by a $520 million pay deal. And last week, police accepted a 3 percent payrise each year for three years, after rejecting an initial offer.

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