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Slashing incident sparks work stoppage

|Written By Ron Stang
WINDSOR - The Ontario Court came to a complete halt here last week ascourt workers abruptly decided to refuse to work after a defendantwaiting to be sentenced on two charges of assault pulled out a plastic box-cutter-type knife and began slashing his left arm.
'Must we always require a crisis to effect change within the justice system?' asks OBA president Heather McGee.
The man was immediately tackled by two security staff and removed from the building. But general court building staff such as court clerks - members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) - fearing for their safety, left their jobs, postponing business in as many as eight courtrooms in the downtown Windsor building.
The incident resurrected a simmering concern in this and the nearby Superior Court building about the lack of metal detectors to screen people entering the courthouses for weapons. Indeed in this case the defendant, Paul McLeod, 23, had three other knives on him, his lawyer John Liddle said.
Court personnel have complained periodically about the security problem, although there is a police presence with roaming officers throughout the buildings as well as in courtrooms. Indeed the guards' quick response during this incident testified to the effectiveness of that aspect of security, Liddle said.
Jill Morgan, staff representative for OPSEU, said court security has been a "longstanding" concern among her members, "that either prisoners or people entering the courtroom can bring in weapons and there's no means to know that."
The incident has sparked an investigation by the Ministry of Labour. And it sent courthouse stakeholders such as the local administrative judge, staff representatives, the Crown's office, and local bar into meetings to find at least a temporary solution to reopen the building and prevent the loss of further precious court time.
That took place a day later on Wednesday, when the building reopened at its normal time, with Windsor Police Service officers equipped with wands to check people entering the building. According to Ken Marley, president of the Windsor Criminal Lawyers Association, a participant in the meetings, this appears to be a "permanent temporary solution" for the time being. Or at least until the completion of the labour ministry investigation and a decision over what agency would pay for what most everyone seems to agree is the best solution: stationary metal detectors similar to those in airports.
"We've all had these concerns," local administrative Judge Harry Momotiuk said. "But the question is, who's responsible for it?"
The province downloaded courthouse security to municipalities years ago, and courthouses are staffed by local police. The Windsor situation is only the latest in several that have occurred around the province, Ontario Bar Association president Heather McGee said.
"Must we always require a crisis to effect change within the justice system?" she asked.
Up to now security has been dealt with locally, resulting in a wide variation of security measures from courthouse to courthouse. What is needed is "consistency" across the province, she said.
For example, the non-fatal stabbing of a police detective in Newmarket, Ont., 10 years ago resulted in metal detectors being installed in that court.
But McGee said continued lobbing for beefed-up and consistent security, which the OBA has called for, is not going to take place until the provincial government begins to put more resources into the attorney general's ministry as a whole. She said the ministry "has not grown" in the last two decades compared to other portfolios. Yet, she said, the population has grown and so have societal ills.
"Legal aid is a perfect example of that" underfunding, she said.
McGee said her organization will be meeting with the minister at the end of April and "will be raising" the security issue.
In Windsor, the municipality spends $2 million on security over a total of three court facilities, including the provincial offences court. Deputy police chief Roger Mortimore, who chairs the court security committee, said the province has mandated local police under the police services act to develop court security plans. And while he believes the Windsor plan has generally served well, "the difficulty is that there are no minimum regulations, there's no outline of what at minimum the security level shall be."
He said if the attorney general was to pay for installation of metal detectors and staff to operate them, Windsor police "would certainly support that endeavour and those efforts" by establishing a complementary security plan elsewhere in the buildings.
Liddle, for his part, said he has never felt particularly vulnerable in the provincial court building, a modern, multi-level facility that is actually attached to the city's main police station.
"I've never had a problem personally," he said. But after this incident he thought about how the client, who is bipolar, could easily have turned on him. "And then you think, 'Wow, that's pretty scary.'"
His client was taken to Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital but was released later that day. Liddle is critical of the hospital for not detaining McLeod for 72 hours under the Mental Health Act because he may have presented a danger to himself or others.
A short time later, another lawyer, Beth Craig, while driving home from work, happened to notice McLeod on Windsor's main street walking away from the hospital.
Hospital spokeswoman Kim Spirou said McLeod was assessed by a psychiatric nurse and a psychiatrist and "was released into a community-based" Canadian Mental Health Association program.
While security must remain a concern, Ken Marley said, he regrets the fact that the shutdown resulted in a loss of a day, affecting numerous court proceedings.
"The number of impacts are really substantial when you stop to think of it," he said.
With some trials put off for months, witnesses' memories might not be as good, and victims will have to wait longer for justice to be done. So while the shutdown resulted in "staggering" financial costs, he said, "there are societal costs as well."
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