A judge has ordered the Ministry of Justice back to the negotiating table with its striking staff ahead of a new round of nationwide protests.
Negotiations between the ministry and Public Service Association (PSA) were ordered by the Employment Court todayand are understood to be planned for Tuesday or Wednesday.
It is the second time the Employment Court has been involved in the ongoing pay dispute after having already dismissed an injunction application by the ministry to stop short-notice "lightning strikes" because of safety concerns.
However, the ministry's chief executive Andrew Bridgman told the Herald he was "bitterly disappointed" the PSA was still seeking further lightning strikes on Monday after the Employment Court mediation order.
"It appears the response from the PSA was to notify us that they were planning a nationwide lightning strike on Monday, but without any indication of when it will occur or for how long," he said in a statement.
"We recognise the right of PSA members – who are all ministry employees – to take strike action. However, we expect on Monday the PSA will adopt its standard tactic of giving us just 30 minutes to quickly clear busy and crowded courts."
But PSA national secretary Glenn Barclay said the union's position has remained the same throughout negotiations.
"The door to resuming bargaining towards reaching a settlement with the Ministry of Justice has remained wide open," he said.
"While we welcome mediation in the coming week, particularly as we have repeatedly called on the ministry to set a date to enable us to resume bargaining, we are concerned that we have yet to receive a meaningful, tangible, concrete sign of a movement in the position of the ministry since we last met on October 29."
Barclay said after two months of industrial action the ministry should "clearly understand that position".
"Without movement towards a better offer the current work-to-rule bans and lightning strikes are set to continue."
Despite losing the injunction bid, Bridgman maintained his position that the short-notice strikes are "unsafe and irresponsible".
"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," he said.
"There are also family and friends of defendants and their lawyers. The potential for a serious health and safety incident to occur as all these people are pushed out on to the street is very real."
His comments come after both New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck and New Zealand Bar Association (NZBA) vice-president Jonathan Eaton QC expressed safety concerns about the industrial action after a brawl in a Christchurch courtroom.
A fracas erupted at the Christchurch District Court yesterday as men rushed the dock while a man appeared in court over the fatal shooting of a King Cobra gang member.
However, PSA national organiser Brendon Lane told the Herald previous appearances for the case had been held in closed courts because of the security threat the gang members posed.
The ministry's chief operating officer, Carl Crafar, also said there were three court security officers in the courtroom and a heightened police presence for the hearing.
Prominent lawyer Ron Mansfield, while questioning the Chief District Court Judge's decision to alter adjournments, considered the notion the PSA strikes had any involvement in the Christchurch brawl to be "disingenuous".
"To impose any blame on the PSA, security incidents like that happen sadly regularly and hence the difficult and stressful environment court staff work in every day," he told the Herald.
Mansfield said Chief Judge Jan-Marie Doogue was "undermining" the impact of the strikes and made lawyers and the court "complicit with the ministry" after she exercised her statutory powers under the District Court Act to move the break times.
The PSA had initially sought a pay increase of more than 13 per cent, more than double the ministry's budget, but has subsequently reduced its claim to 11 per cent.
They also wants to close the gender pay gap.
By the numbers: Is the strike affecting New Zealand's prison population?
Figures released to the Herald by the ministry show thousands fewer cases are being completed as a result of the industrial action.
New Zealand's courts completed 2300 fewer events, such as sentencing hearings and bail applications, in September than August - the month before the strikes began.
The ministry estimates it will complete about 7500 fewer events this month compared to August.
Bridgman, however, would not offer a figure for what the current bill to the New Zealand taxpayer is.
"This is not about the monetary cost to the ministry, it's about the impact of the industrial action on the public and our people," he said
The ministry is also utilising private security guards to "supplement" its court security officers to "cover unplanned absences and responding to increased risks at specific times", Bridgman said.
"We are currently unable to quantify this cost," he told the Herald.
Perhaps surprisingly, New Zealand's remand prison population has also been relatively steady throughout the strikes.
Bridgman told the Herald the PSA's action will result in bail hearings being adjourned, meaning "some people will be held in custody for an unnecessary length of time".
Chief Judge Doogue has also said judges are trying to avoid people being held in custody for any longer than is necessary and are giving priority to people held in custody.
But Department of Corrections statistics released to the Herald show the number of defendants awaiting court appearances and trial has actually dropped since August.
At the start of the week beginning August 6 the national remand population was 3078.
It dropped to as low as 2991 at the start of the final week of August before remaining just under 3000 for the start of every week until the latest figure of 2984 for the week beginning November 12.
The highest the remand population rose to at the start of any given week during the industrial action period has been 2999 on October 15.