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Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Police, judges at odds over courthouse security
Judges raise safety fears: 'We'd have no one patrolling the streets,' police say
Tom Blackwell
Southam News

Judges should be able to order uniformed guards for their courtrooms whenever they feel it is needed, Ontario's chief justices say.

Concerned that the halls of justice are not as safe as they could be, the heads of the three courts have also called for regular, province-wide audits of courthouse security, according to an internal document.

Some Ontario judges are so worried about what they consider lax security, they've postponed hearings or, in at least one case, thrown out a criminal charge.

But the government has indicated that police will continue to have the final say about how much muscle is needed -- after consulting judges and lawyers.

Letting individual judges decide would be an unacceptable drain on already stretched resources, police say.

"You can't deal with each circumstance individually or it becomes prohibitive," said Ken Robertson, Hamilton-Wentworth's chief of police and president of the Ontario Chiefs of Police Association.

"We'd have all our police officers tied up in court and no one patrolling the streets."

The Ontario government has drafted new regulations, to be implemented by January, 2001, directing police to come up with courthouse security plans after consulting committees that include lawyers, victims groups and judges.

The new rules, outlined in a Ministry of the Solicitor-General's document, clearly leave the ultimate decision with police.

"Obviously there is a difference of views," said a judicial source.

The disagreement comes as judges across the province raise concerns about the safety of their buildings.

In Kingston, a judge dismissed a charge in January because he felt security was not sufficient, while a colleague cut short hearings eight times for the same reason. They wanted an officer stationed in each courtroom permanently. Police said that would be too expensive, but compromised by assigning one officer to patrol the whole courthouse.

Earlier this month, a North Bay judge also complained about the level of protection. Police there agreed to his request for an officer in the courtroom during any criminal jury trial, sentencing or guilty plea.

The chief justices refuse to release an overview report they prepared on court security, said a spokesman for Chief Justice Patrick LeSage of the Superior Court of Justice.

Judge LeSage's office did release a two-page document outlining the group's recommendations. The proposals endorse the new rules from the solicitor-general's office but go further, saying a uniformed officer "must be present" in a courtroom if the judge deems it necessary.

Jim Cowan, a ministry spokesman, said he believes judges have the legal authority to do that even now.

The judges also called for an audit of courthouse security before changes are implemented, and up to twice a year after that.

Mr. Cowan said the ministry sees no need for an audit, since the new security committees will have to do annual reviews.

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