Nova Scotia Crown attorneys call for safety probe in courthouses

Nova Scotia Crown attorneys call for safety probe in courthouses
Crown attorneys in Nova Scotia want the province’s Department of Labour and Workforce Development to investigate security and safety issues at the Halifax and Dartmouth courthouses, citing incidents of violence against Crown attorneys, workers and others inside these buildings.

The Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association filed a compliant under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act on Tuesday, saying that the two courthouses, Halifax and Dartmouth, “constitute an unacceptable hazard to the health and safety of prosecutors, witnesses, parties to proceedings, other stakeholders, and other persons at these workplaces."

Eric Woodburn, president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association, told COS the incidents of violence have been going on for years. “As a result of that, over that time period, we have been pushing the Department of Justice here to make changes to the security at the courthouse.”

In October 2008, the Halifax courthouse installed a metal detector as a temporary measure. But after some “media attention” and several attempts by certain individuals to bring in weapons into the courthouse, the metal detector was kept as a permanent fixture, Woodburn said.

Since then, the Halifax courthouse has recovered 1,600 assorted weapons, Woodburn said.

No metal detector, on the other hand, is installed at the Dartmouth courthouse despite it being one of the busiest courthouses in the province, Woodburn said. Early in March, a mini-riot broke out inside the Dartmouth courthouse involving around 20 to 25 people from two rival factions.

“We’ve had Crown attorneys attacked in the courtrooms, physically attacked, punched in the face,” Woodburn said. For years, Crown attorneys have been asking the Department of Justice to make changes to the security in the province’s courthouses, he said.

As a result, court house security committees were set up consisting of lawyers, Crown attorneys, judges, Department of Justice officials and sheriffs. The committees made recommendations on how to improve safety at Nova Scotia courthouses, Woodburn said.

“In April 2009, they took all the recommendations and made a draft recommendation which went to the Department of Justice, hence, the minister of justice. And since that time, they had done nothing substantial with regards to anything,” he said.

Woodburn said filing a complaint with the Department of Labour was a “last resort” for Crown workers. “We’ve done everything from my point of view that we’ve been told to do. We’ve given them information, we’ve given them reporting sheets, went to the committees. And every other day there’s some kind of violent thing that happens in our courthouse.”

The Department of Labour declined to “confirm nor deny” receipt of the Crown attorneys’ complaint.

In an e-mail response to a COS request for interview, Kevin Finch, communications advisor for the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Workforce Development, noted that Nova Scotia relies on the internal responsibility system when it comes to workplace safety issues.

Explaining the process for resolving OHS issues, Finch said, “The first step is to raise the issue with a supervisor or manager. If that is not resolved to everyone's satisfaction in a timely fashion, it can be escalated to a health and safety representative or joint occupational health and safety committee (the size of the workforce would determine if a workplace would have a representative or a JOHSC). If the issue is not resolved in a timely fashion, it can be escalated to the department.”

In the Crown attorney’s case, Woodburn said, “We’ve gone well past that.”

For now, the Crown attorneys are asking the Department of Labour to initially investigate safety issues at the Halifax and Dartmouth courthouses as a “test case.” Woodburn said they will eventually ask the labour department to expand its investigation to other courthouses in the province.