Nova Scotia courthouses ordered to address safety concerns

Nova Scotia courthouses ordered to address safety concerns
Courthouses in Halifax and Dartmouth are being studied to determine the best way to improve safety and security for both employees and the public.

The examination of security measures at the courthouses comes on the heels of a number of incidents that have highlighted several safety concerns at the Halifax location.

“We’ve had Crown attorneys attacked in the courtrooms, physically attacked, punched in the face,” said Rick Woodburn, president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association, in an earlier interview. He has been seeking the inspection for years, finally filing a complaint with the Department of Labour on March 23.

In its complaint, the Crown attorneys’ association stated the Halifax and Dartmouth courthouses “constitute an unacceptable hazard to the health and safety of prosecutors, witnesses, parties to proceedings, other stakeholders and other persons at these workplaces.”

It is that complaint that led the Labour department to investigate Woodburn’s concerns and issue a compliance order to the Justice department on July 9.

COS caught up with Woodburn following the issuance of the order. “What we are looking for is three things,” he said, “a secure perimeter, secure access for staff, both into the building and into the courtrooms and secure courtrooms themselves. Right now you can sit two to six feet from us.”

Under the conditions of the compliance order issued to both the Department of Justice and the Public Prosecution Service, both organizations have until Aug. 6 to conduct workplace violence risk assessments of the four courthouses in the metro Halifax area that handle criminal matters.

Specifically, the courthouses to be examined are the Halifax Provincial Court, the Dartmouth Provincial Court, the Law Courts Building and the Sheet Harbour Satellite Court.

The terms of the assessment the Justice department must complete for each courthouse are dictated by Section 5 of Nova Scotia’s Violence in the Workplace Regulations. It is expected to include such areas as:
•    the safe access and egress for the courthouse users, such as: judges, legal counsel, Crown attorneys and court staff;
•    installation and monitoring of detection equipment used at entrances of the courthouses;
•    sheriff officers’ response to duress alarms; and
•    review of the threat risk assessment presently being used by Sheriff Services to determine the number of Sheriff Services staff required on a daily basis.

Also required is an assessment of the courthouses’ layouts to be completed by a party who has expertise in such evaluations. According to the compliance order, this assessment is expected to include “identifying the potential health and safety hazards that the judiciary, clerks, Crown attorneys and defense counsel may be exposed to while carrying out their duties in proximity to the accused and persons in the gallery.”

After the assessments have been completed, violence prevention plans must be developed and submitted to the Labour department.

At the moment, the only security measures in Nova Scotia courthouses are surveillance cameras in the Halifax and Dartmouth locations, panic alarms for judges and staff at all locations, and a single metal detector at the door to Halifax’s courthouse.

Since the metal detector was installed in October 2008, nearly 2,000 weapons have been confiscated from people trying to enter the courthouse, including knives, needles and bear spray. It is this success that has Woodburn wondering why the Dartmouth courthouse is still without such a device.

In 2009, the family of a murder victim attacked the accused inside a courtroom. Then in early March 2009, a mini riot broke out inside the courthouse halls involving more than 20 people from supporters of two sides in a trial.

Ken Winch, the Justice department’s executive director of court services, said province-wide security improvements have been ongoing since a 2007 facilities review. He adds that the Labour department’s directives are welcomed and will be acted upon because staff safety is an ongoing priority. However, the Justice department is likely to ask for an extension of the Aug. 6 deadline, he said.

Woodburn said that as president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, he is quite happy to see the Occupational Health and Safety investigators giving the government the opportunity to look into the issue.

Once the assessments have been completed for the Halifax-area courts, Woodburn said the Justice department and the prosecution service will have a model that can be expanded across the province.