Courthouse brawl highlights workplace safety concerns for Nova Scotia prosecutors

Attorneys’ association files health and safety complaint over lack of security; president says attorneys could refuse to work for health and safety reasons

A "full-out brawl" on March 10 and alleged government inaction has prompted Nova Scotia prosecutors to launch a formal complaint about security at provincial courthouses.

On March 23, the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys’ Association filed a complaint with the province's labour department about unsafe work conditions at the Dartmouth and Halifax provincial courthouses.

"Workplace conditions, both inside and outside the buildings, constitute an unacceptable hazard to the health and safety of prosecutors, witnesses, parties to proceedings [and] other stakeholders,"  said the association in the complaint.

Many Nova Scotia courthouses don't have metal detectors to find weapons carried into court. Prisoner boxes are also often unsecure, increasing the risk of prisoners trying to escape. Security cameras need upgrading and there are few separate and secure entrances for courthouse staff.

Threats of violence made against prosecutors prompted the crown attorneys association to demand the installation of a metal detector at the Halifax provincial courthouse. A detector was reportedly used for a two-week trial run but was then removed, despite the fact it found people carrying weapons. Since being reinstalled for a high-profile case, 1,600 potential weapons have been seized, including knives, brass knuckles and pepper spray, Rick Woodburn, a Halifax prosecutor and president of the association, told Canadian OH&S News.

The Nova Scotia Department of Justice formed security committees at each courthouse to get feedback on safety hazards. The committees of lawyers, judges, sheriffs and other stakeholders, forwarded their suggestions to the department last year, but not much has yet been done.

This supposed inaction and the March 10 brawl — about 25 people from two rival gangs got into a melee at the Dartmouth courthouse — caused the attorneys' association to file the formal complaint, said Woodburn.

"It's not getting any better. It truly is an unsafe environment for everybody," Woodburn told Canadian OH&S News. "We've had prosecutors attacked right in the courtroom.”

The provincial justice department said a 2007 security review of courthouses made 11 recommendations that are in the process of being implemented. Improvements so far have included upgraded security surveillance, installation of panic alarms and the purchase of metal detectors.

Commenting generally on the process surrounding safety complaints, labour department spokesman Kevin Finch said an occupational health and safety officer would be assigned to follow up on the concerns. "It may be possible for the officer to bring the parties together to resolve the situation. Failing that, there could be an inspection or an investigation," as well as the possibility of compliance orders, administrative penalties or charges under health and safety legislation, said Finch.

A formal refusal of unsafe work under the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act by crown attorneys could happen if conditions don’t improve.

"If things aren't changed to our satisfaction, then we'll certainly be looking at that option," said Woodburn.

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