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Courthouse security a hot potato

|Written By Helen Burnett

The problems with court security in Ontario were emphasized by a violent incident in a Windsor courtroom earlier this year, but the issue of who will pay for increased security is still up for debate.

Some courthouses, like Toronto

In June, the city of Owen Sound held its second forum on court security costs, chaired by the city's mayor and attended by police chiefs as well as members of the legal community.

Rob Zochodne, the central-east regional representative of the County and District Law Presidents' Association, attended the meeting and while he says the mayors' issues related mostly to cost-sharing of court security, he adds, "We've supported their efforts, because obviously court security is an extremely important issue to the bar."

However, the issue of safety within the courtroom was emphasized two months prior to the latest costs meeting, when a man brought box cutters into the Windsor courthouse and proceeded to injure himself during his trial. Workers at the courthouse subsequently went on strike to protest the lack of security at the entrance door of the courts. The provincial government has since reportedly made a contribution toward the cost of security at Windsor's courthouse.

The minutes of the meeting in Owen Sound note that 11 courthouses in the province have "perimeter weapons screening," or metal detectors. There are also specific court security measures in place in several Toronto-area courts, including metal detectors, panic buttons, and increased police presence.

But there are many courthouses that don't offer much security, particularly to judges. One Ottawa Superior Court judge says she's been asking for a panic button for years and still doesn't have one. Often when there are problems with elevators and such, judges are forced to leave the courts via the main doors, exposing them to possible risks.

CDLPA chairman Orm Murphy says court security is an issue he raised with Attorney General Michael Bryant earlier this year.

He adds that in addition to municipalities being responsible for security, there are issues with respect to the actual physical construction of the buildings themselves, such as the number of entrances and exits, and whether they are manned or unmanned. "I think [that] will be on the scope of the original downloading of security onto the municipalities," says Murphy.

In Ottawa, the courthouse has three entrances. There's a single security guard covering the main entrance but none at the back and side doors.

One of the more complex issues that needs to be discussed, he says, is whether the same security measures, such as metal detectors, would be necessary in all jurisdictions across the province.

"If there are minimum standards, we don't know what they are, but no one is paying any attention to them."

Murphy adds, "You have many facets to this problem and it is going to be expensive. No matter whose responsibility it is, it is going to be expensive to get minimum standards.

"When you meet with each of them separately, they each say it's someone else's responsibility, not theirs. That was something that I had hoped that we could do - to get all of the people that are responsible into the same room.

"Certainly the discussions that we've had up to this point [are] we have to sit down and talk about what are reasonable minimum standards, and then from that, the decision as to who is going to pay for it, I think reasonably flows," Murphy says.

Earlier this month, the province announced that it would be building its second major crime court in the 2201 Finch Ave. W. courthouse in Toronto, complete with additional security measures. Toronto's first dedicated crime court at 361 University Ave. is scheduled to be ready this fall.

The issue of court security also emerged in a different context during a recent trial in Toronto after a police officer was asked by a judge to remove his firearm before testifying in court. Peter Brauti, lawyer for the Toronto Police Association, says Justice Melvyn Green has now left it up to the parties to decide whether the officer should be allowed to wear a firearm in court.

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