Lax courthouse security puts judges at risk, conference told

Increasing violence prompts call to action

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

CALGARY — Lax courthouse security procedures that lag far behind the times have become an invitation to disaster, senior judges and security experts told a Canadian Bar Association convention yesterday.

Delegates were told of guns being found on courtroom litigants, of homes of lawyers and judges vandalized, and of a Quebec judge who had to retreat to safety after finding a self-represented litigant sitting on the hood of her car in a secluded courthouse parking lot.

“Many potentially dangerous incidents occur regularly in Montreal courthouses,” Chief Justice François Rolland, of the Quebec Superior Court said. “Sadly, we see it all. We must adopt a global mission and proactive approach to protect all of Canada's courthouses, and it must be done without delay.”

Chief Justice Rolland said that most Quebec judges live in a state of apprehension because the province's courthouses lack the basic protection afforded by metal detectors. “We have been talking about installing them since 1994, but it has not happened,” he said. “It is a question of money … I understand that bringing procedures up to par will generate expenses, but the price is small compared to the potential for disaster.”

Governments do not appear to recognize that courthouses are “high-risk institutions,” Chief Justice Rolland said. Meanwhile, the public has fixated on the threat of widespread terrorist acts, and lost sight of the fact that gangs, criminal defendants or those caught up in bitter family-law disputes represent a far more commonplace concern.

In Quebec, he said, there are an average of two incidents a day in which security personnel deal with a violent or potentially violent individual. “Bomb threats are regular occurrences,” he said. “One litigant recently jumped over a courtroom railing toward the judge.

“They have made big improvements over the years, but still it is not satisfactory because the risk level is much higher than it was five or 10 years ago,” he told reporters after the speech.

Reid Morden, former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and former RCMP commissioner Norman Inkster both urged provinces and municipalities to upgrade their security measures and begin a formal risk-assessment program before there is a serious outbreak of violence, or the family member of a judge is kidnapped to influence the outcome of a trial.

Mr. Inkster said that some unpublicized incidents have underlined the need to take action quickly. He referred to one such incident, in which a prosecutor and his family were put under police protection “for a significant period of time” because of credible threats to their safety.

“We must talk about these things in a pre-emptive way,” he said. “In our lifetimes, we are going to see attempts … where family members could be kidnapped and held in an attempt to intimidate a court or judge.”

All three speakers said that disputes over which level of government ought to plan and pay for security tend to be a primary reason for inaction.

They also deplored the fact that centralized statistics are unavailable to show the prevalence of violent acts or weapons seizures in court jurisdictions across the country. This lack of data is indicative of the out-of-date approach authorities have applied to the problem, they said.

Possible solutions mentioned by the panel participants yesterday include:

- Visible patrols by security personnel;

- Risk assessment conducted by security experts who can determine which groups or individuals present threats in particular jurisdictions;

- Special attention paid to family-law cases, where over 50 per cent of litigants represent themselves in emotionally charged situations;

- Escape hatches near every judge's dais to allow for quick escapes in an emergency.