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Time to open up about security threats

|Written By Kirsten McMahon - Law Times

Asthreats and violence against lawyers and judges are becoming more common in North America, the Ontario Bar Association is hoping toprovide a pre-emptive strike with its Personal Security Handbook.

"It is a sad commentary that this is perhaps the way of our modern world," said OBA past president Ian Kirby. "It is wrong not to fully represent your clients because of threats made against you. At the same time, it is wrong not to take threats seriously; to ensure that you, your family, and your colleagues are safe."

The 18-page handbook was produced by the OBA's task force on lawyer safety, which was formed in late 2003, in part, because of a death threat made to lawyer Rocco Galati.

Galati was representing Abdurahman Khadr, a Canadian man released from a U.S. military holding centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was held on suspicion of terrorist links. Galati received a telephone death threat, and as a result, he stepped down from several national security cases.

Chairman of the task force, John McMunagle, a criminal lawyer at McCann Law Offices in Ottawa, said since the Galati incident there have been the courthouse shootings in Atlanta, in which a court reporter and judge were fatally wounded, and a case in Chicago in which the husband and mother of a federal judge were gunned down in the judge's home.

Although these cases are extreme, McMunagle said threats against lawyers are common and happen all the time, but should be taken seriously.

"It almost used to be badge of honour as a criminal lawyer if you weren't threatened with death on a regular basis. I know it's funny, and at the time I thought it was funny too, but not anymore. The climate has changed," he said.

"On the other hand, I don't want the impression to be that lawyers are running around like scared little rabbits running to the police all the time. No, in fact, the exact opposite is the truth from our work on this task force. Lawyers don't want to report it.

"There's sort of this machismo, I don't know what the gender-neutral term is, that 'I'm tough. My client threatened me.' It's almost like a one-upmanship in talking to some of my colleagues privately and what I'm trying to make people understand is it's time to get this issue out of the closet."

McMunagle said it's not just criminal lawyers who should be increasing their level of awareness about personal safety. Through the work of the task force, he said they found most incidents arose in a family law context.

The handbook, which has been sent out to the OBA's more than 15,000 members, details how to understand and react to various threats, how to prevent harassment, what to do if someone is following you, and precautions you can take to protect yourself at home.

"What we wanted everyone to understand was we're not talking about someone putting a gun to your head," McMunagle said. "That can happen and if that's going to happen, frankly, there's very little anyone can do about it. What we're talking about primarily is the verbal threats, the e-mail threats, this type of thing. It happens all the time the thing is people just blow it off. . . .

"My message is 'we're tired of being threatened and we're not going to take it anymore.' The days of having it swept under the carpet or slide down our back are over and that's the point."

The issue of courthouse security in the province is also important, he said. Under the Police Services Act, courthouse security is the responsibility of the local municipal police force or the Ontario Provincial Police, which means security standards and practices vary from location to location.

"You could walk into the Ottawa courthouse loaded, fully armed and loaded and walk into any damn courtroom and nobody's going to stop you. That has to stop. I'm sorry, it's unfortunate that we're turning our courthouses into the American model but that's the way it is," he said.

McMunagle noted that there have been thefts occurring in the unlocked barristers lounge at the courthouse in Ottawa. Although it's not a violent threat, he said its important to be observant and aware at all times.

"Now if I see someone and I don't recognize them, I ask them 'Are you a lawyer? I don't know you." And if they're not then 'What are you doing here? Get the hell out.' Just something as simple as that," he said.

McMunagle said that all things aside, he still feels courthouses in the province are a safe place to work.

"There are dozens of armed police officers on any given day, so am I worried? No. Am I cautious, am I aware? Yes.

"Our courthouses are safe. We want to make them even safer."

McMunagle appreciates that some of the information in the handbook may seem alarmist to some, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

"I just don't want to wait until some lawyer, judge, or courthouse official gets seriously injured, or worse killed, before we do something about it," he said of the work of the task force.

"I personally don't care because how do I look a colleague's spouse in the eye or child in the eye when something happens? And that's the point. It's not a question of if it's going to happen, it's a question of when in my opinion. I don't mean to sound paranoid but we can't ignore the reality that this is a different world and people have access to weapons."

Kirby noted that the OBA has committed funds for the coming year to ensure the task force can continue to develop safety programming and support tools.

A five-hour Webcast of a recent personal security seminar will be the OBA's Web site (www.oba.org) free of charge for members and for a nominal fee for non-members.

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