Judge supports court strikers
By Richard Harman (author)
An Employment Court Judge has refused to rule “lightning” strikes by courts staff illegal even though the workers are giving only 30 minutes notice of their intention to strike.
A senior Justice Department official told the court the short notice left the Department with no option but to clear the courts when the strikes took place thereby creating a health and safety risk.
This could include risks posed by angry criminal defendants inside the court and gang members clashing outside the court
But Judge Mark Perkins in refusing to grant the injunction made a strong case for the rights of workers to strike and for those strikes to be disruptive.
He said the whole purpose of a strike was to cause inconvenience and it was a valid bargaining tool.
The action in the Employment Court last week related to strikes by Court security officers.
However, in the wake of the judgement, Court Registry Officers at the Auckland District Court and Manukau District Court banned serving, checking and signing sentencing documents.
This action has commenced will continue until Friday.
A spokesman for the PSA (who represent the workers), Glenn Barclay said: “The impact in a courtroom is that fundamental paperwork for case files entering the Courts will be stalled to the point of causing postponements and major delays.
“This follows a series of nationwide bans on fundamental transcription work by Court Reporters that came into effect on Monday, including bans on tasks that are core to standard operations including correcting errors.”
The dispute has been running for eight weeks so far and is over pay rates for court workers.
The Justice Department last week sought an interim injunction from the Employment Court declaring the lightning strikes illegal because 30 minutes was not enough notice and the short time was creating a dangerous situation in the courts.
Carl Antony Crafar, Chief Operating Officer for the Ministry of Justice, said the Ministry had legal obligations to keep court premises safe, healthy and secure, and without alternative cover being available during the course of the partial strike action there was no option but to clear and close the courthouses.
“Attending court is stressful, and the process of exiting a large number of people increases that stress, and it also gives rise to risk among those facing criminal charges who become confused and angry,” he said in his affidavit.
“After evacuation, people lingering outside the courthouse results in them coming into close contact with others they would prefer not to such as rival gang members, opposing parties in litigation, estranged family members, and that this gives rise to a potential danger.
“The Police cannot be counted upon to replace the Court Security Officers on every occasion when they are asked to do so.”
Mr Crafar further claimed that the damage to the reputation of the Ministry of Justice, which because of the actions being taken by the staff, would e impossible to quantify.
But the Judge did not agree that the short notice of the strikes rendered them unlawful.
Instead, he appeared to endorse the use of strikes as bargaining tools in industrial disputes.
”I do not consider that the inability of the plaintiff to consider its response to make appropriate arrangements to keep the affected courts open is a valid argument that the strikes by the Court Security Officers are unlawful,” he said in his judgement.
“The whole purpose of the strike action, which is common in other cases as well, is to cause such inconvenience and it is a valid bargaining tool where carried out in accordance with the statutory requirements.
“The rights to strike and lockout, so long as they meet the requirements of the statutory provisions, are well enshrined in employment law and protected by the provisions of the Act.
“The rights to strike and lockout are part of ensuring a balance to the relative negotiating positions of the parties in industrial bargaining.
“Any step to reduce their effectiveness is not to be taken unless there are sound principled reasons for doing so.”
He said that if health and safety considerations arise, it was for the plaintiff to manage them “and on the basis of the evidence before me, it has managed to do so to this point.”
“What amounts to inconvenience to the plaintiff needs to be weighed against depriving the employees of a substantial right to strike," he said.
“The proposal by the plaintiff to require notice of 48 hours would seriously and unjustifiably affect the relative bargaining positions of the parties at this stage in their negotiations.
“To require the defendant and its members to give 48 hours’ notice, which is two days, would negate the effectiveness of the actions it is presently taking and reduce the strike action to being merely symbolic.
“Similar considerations come into play in considering the overall justice of the case.”
The PSA is likely to regard the judgement – which was issued last week --- as a major vindication of its campaign.
But even so, it has yet to persuade the Government, to put up the cash to pay its members more.