Ongoing court strikes could lead to miscarriage of justice - Chief Judge
Anneke Smith, RNZ court reporter
Ongoing strike action throughout the country's courts may result in a miscarriage of justice, says the Chief District Court Judge.
Industrial action has disrupted court proceedings for months as the Ministry of Justice negotiates a new contract with the Public Service Association (PSA).
More than 2000 PSA members have voted to walk off the job amid work-to-rule action as negotiations with the ministry have reached a stalemate.
Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue said the industrial action had caused significant disruption to the justice system and she had concerns for its wider implications.
Judge Doogue - who sits independently of the ministry and its employees - said hearings, including bail applications, were being delayed as a result of limited court hours.
"We want to avoid being held in custody for undue periods of time; that is a breach of their natural rights. We want people to be able to appear and have their bail applications heard as soon as possible; for them not to do so is a breach of their human rights."
Judge Doogue said victims and their families were also finding themselves stuck in the system.
"We want participants to be able to come and tell their stories and have their trials when their trials have been scheduled for some time. For them not to do so, there may very well be a miscarriage of justice arising out of undue delay."
Criminal Bar Association president Len Anderson said lawyers were conflicted over the strike action.
"Lawyers are generally sympathetic to the court staff, who they see as not being particularly well-paid for positions that have a great deal of responsibility. However, the concerns that they have is with people appearing before the court."
He said the industrial dispute was impeding defendants' rights and wreaking havoc in an already-busy justice system.
"You have about six hours of hearing time in a day and the industrial action has reduced that to something like two and a half hours. So basically for each day that the strike goes on we have half a day of extra work further down the track. It is a situation that's very concerning."
Last Wednesday, union workers walked off the job for a half-day strike, closing 19 courthouses from Gore to Kaitaia.
It followed the ministry's failed bid for an injunction on short-notice strikes at the Employment Court on Monday.
Judge Doogue said judges were already taking measures to counter the disruption but she could soon be forced to make tough calls about what cases take priority.
"Judges are distressed. They don't like to see people being disrupted or potentially being in the system for far longer than they should be. At a human level they are distressed by what is occurring."
Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said the ministry was doing its best to minimise the impact of the industrial action and had made a revised offer to the PSA.
"It has a budget of 3 percent of its annual salary bill for pay increases this year and 3 percent for next year, which is consistent with other public service agencies, and has attempted to work with the PSA in how best to use this budget in maximising increases for its people."
He said the ministry had also offered a one-off payment of $750 to PSA members this year and was ready to meet with the union at any time.
However, Public Service Association national secretary Glenn Barclay said the union would not return to the negotiating table until the ministry changed their offer.
"I think that they really do need to stop and think about how they can change the frame here for the talks to resume. I'm hopeful they're turning their minds to that and that they will hear our call to resume negotiations. Hopefully, we'll hear from them soon."
Judge Doogue said there was no doubt that the longer the strike action went on, the more difficult it would be for the justice system to recover.