The potential for a serious health and safety incident when Whangārei Courts staff walk off their jobs during lightening strikes is very real, the Ministry of Justice has warned.
The warning comes after Public Service Association members working in the court took hour-long industrial action yesterday that forced the closure of courtrooms and public counters from 11am to 12pm.
But PSA national and Northland delegate Carol Browne said part of the bargaining involved around better deal for court security officers whose average starting pay was between $42,000 and $43,000 annually.
"Their roles have changed considerably and they now man search stations in courts but they don't get paid what security officers in airports doing similar jobs earn, although the cost of living has gone up."
She said court stenographers and victim advisors, for example, worked just as hard as everyone else and did such a fantastic job yet the ministry thought they were being overpaid.
Yesterday's lightning strike followed a similar action last week in Whangārei that lasted nearly five hours and at Kaitaia District Court where PSA members walked off their jobs for three hours on Friday.
There are about 40 PSA members working in Whangārei courts and almost a similar number in Kaikohe and Kaitaia District Courts as well as the Maori Land Court.
Only those in Whangarei went on the lightning strike following a ballot yesterday morning.
Ministry chief executive Andrew Bridgman labelled the action of PSA members as "unsafe and irresponsible".
He said the ministry was disappointed the industrial action took place despite the Employment Court on Friday last week ordering both parties to attend mediation.
"Monday is the one of the busiest days of the court week, with both courtrooms and foyers crowded with people appearing in the District Court from weekend and overnight arrests as well as for scheduled hearings.
There were also family and friends of defendants and their lawyers, he said.
"The potential for a serious health and safety incident to occur as all these people were pushed out on to the street was very real.
"Additionally, bail hearings would have been adjourned, and some people would have been held in custody for an unnecessary length of time."
Browne said some lower-paid ministry staff outside Northland received a Work and Income supplement to top up their income.
Among other things, the PSA is calling on the ministry to scrap the performance pay system and replace it with a payment equivalent to the cost of living and for the gender pay gap to be bridged as well.
Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue last week assured the public judges were doing their best to spare court participants from disruption and stress related to the dispute's impact.
"They wish to avoid having people being held in custody for any longer than is necessary and are also concerned that vulnerable participants are not re-traumatised by any delays or disruption," she said.