Court brawl blamed on strike action

A violent brawl at the Christchurch District Court this morning was a direct result of the ongoing employment dispute between the Ministry of Justice and court staff, says the New Zealand Law Society.

The incident came as a man appeared in court over the fatal shooting of a King Cobra gang member.

"From being disruptive of court hearings, this situation has now shown that the safety of people attending the court is at increased risk," New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck said following the clash.

"The lawyer for a defendant who was required to appear in court became aware earlier this week that gang members hostile to him were likely to be present.

"The industrial action meant the lawyer was unable to request an appearance by audio visual link (AVL). She firmly believes that given the circumstances an AVL application would have been granted and the violence would not have occurred in the courtroom."

However, Public Service Association (PSA) national organiser Brendon Lane told the New Zealand Herald previous appearances for the case had been held in closed courts because of the security threat King Cobra members posed.

Today's hearing was directed by the judge to be held in open court, the union representative said.

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue earlier said, as a result of the industrial action, judges are asking prisoners be brought to court in person rather than use an AVL from prison and police cells.

While Beck said the Law Society "is strictly neutral" on the industrial action by PSA members they are are "not aware of what steps, if any, were taken to manage the increased risk".

"However, the incident today has clearly demonstrated what can happen when court procedures cannot be fully utilised because of the industrial dispute," she added.

"We urge the parties to consider the serious impact which the industrial dispute is having on our court system and would encourage them to do all they can to come to a resolution."

Today's incident comes after the Employment Court at Auckland dismissed an injunction application by the Ministry of Justice to stop short-notice "lightning strikes" by PSA members because of safety concerns.

The Ministry's chief operating officer, Carl Crafar, earlier told the Herald the ministry had "serious concerns" about the health and safety risks of the lightning strikes.

"We have taken this action as we feel we have been left with no other choice to ensure the safety of our staff, the public and the judiciary," he said.

"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."

This week, staff at New Zealand's biggest and busiest District Courts also said they will refuse to serve, check and sign legal documents for nearly a month, creating a logjam of adjourned cases.

And today, PSA members voted to walk off the job in Papakura and Pukekohe District Courts for two hours.

The PSA initially sought a pay increase of more than 13 per cent, more than double the ministry's budget, but have subsequently reduced their claim to 11 per cent.

They also wants to close the gender pay gap.

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