litigation and debt recovery practices in Victoria were in the grip of industrial action last week, with clients becoming increasingly frustrated because their actions could not be commenced or progressed. By Friday, the dispute appeared to have been resolved, but the question still remained: will the matter be settled for good before clients lose confidence in the system?
The Attorney General of Victoria Rob Hulls received a letter in December last year from the now former president of the Law Institute of Victoria Bill O’Shea. The letter expressed the concerns of the litigation lawyers’ section of the Law Institute with continuing industrial action by the Magistrates Court, County Court and Sheriff’s Office staff.
“Members of the public are being denied access to justice, they cannot issue proceedings, enter judgment and so on,” the letter read.
Cost implications for clients were also a significant focus in the former president’s list of complaints. O’Shea stressed that hearings that would usually be adjourned “on the papers” now required an appearance by the practitioners. “As you will appreciate this is a considerable addition to the costs incurred by the parties,” he said. “Members (of the Law Institute) in litigation and debt recovery practices report that staff are idle because the courts are not accepting documents for processing.”
Law Institute of Victoria CEO John Cain agreed costs were an issue and that they were limiting access to justice. He told Lawyers Weekly the bans were increasing the cost of litigation “because administrative features are normally in place”.
Just last week the Community and Public Sector Union were enterprise bargaining for state government employees. Then maintaining that the Government was offering a “lousy pay offer”, according to spokesperson Julian Kennelly, the matter did not seem to be headed for resolution in the near future. The lengthy wait concerned the Law Institute and O’Shea raised the ramifications in his letter.
“Already there is a huge backlog of documents in urgent need of processing. It must follow that once the bans are lifted there will be significant delays for a considerable time thereafter,” he wrote. More drastically, he added that “this can only have a negative impact upon public confidence in the justice system”.
“The Institute believes the clients are rightly aggrieved by the delay, inconvenience and extra cost they face as a result of this industrial dispute,” he said.
As a result of negotiations late on Friday, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the chief executive officer of the Magistrates Court, Mick Francis, and the Community and Public Sector Union. Now the only issue is whether the matter can be permanently resolved during the one month lifting of the work bans. Otherwise the issue looks to become a long standing one in Victoria.
Attorney General Rob Hulls was not personally available to speak to Lawyers Weekly about his reaction to the letter last week, however a spokesperson for the A-G asserted that “both parties are working towards a resolution of the enterprise bargaining agreement”. Pressed as to where the A-G stood on the matter, he said he believed that “any bans are unnecessary, but there is still good will on both sides with room to reach a resolution.”
This contradicted the Community and Public Sector Union’s viewpoint last week. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Kennelly argued that for the 25,000 state government employees for whom the Union was lobbying, there was a strong need for pay rises.
The Institute spoke to the Hulls’ office last Friday urging that the issue be resolved without delay, hence the current one month lift to the ban.
The Union’s previous agreement with the Government expired on 1 November last year, explained Kennelly. Despite logging their claims with the Government in September, the Union was “nowhere near” reaching an agreement for new wages and conditions last week. “We tried to move to a new agreement without any angst, but their position is lousy so we are currently in a bargaining position,” Kennelly said.
The memorandum of understanding added that the agreement did not detract from the purpose of the ban, which was to support the central Victorian Public Service claim.
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