Tighter safeguards, streamlined systems planned for provincial court this year
Chief Judge Mark Pike. Telegram file photo
Metal detectors, pat-downs, bag checks and the removal of shoes. That’s no longer just a description of the routine security checks people go through at airports.
It’s also going to be protocol for getting into provincial court in St. John’s.
In the coming months, access to the courts on the fourth floor of Atlantic Place on Water Street will be restricted to those who have been electronically or physically searched by sheriff’s officers.
“In order to get access (to) the general public areas of the courts, including the (nine) courtrooms, you’ll have to pass through security screens,” provincial Chief Judge Mark Pike told The Telegram.
There are several visible changes to the building as a result, and renovations have been underway for months.
The courts at Atlantic Place have three points of entry — one from the elevators, one from the doorways at the top of the escalators and another leading to small claims court.
Those entry points will be reduced to two. The one at the top of the escalators is expected to be closed off to the public and only people with electronic passes will have access, including judges, lawyers, court staff, police, sheriff’s officers and members of the media.
Members of the public will be screened, while those with electronic passes won’t.
A new doorway leading to Courtroom No. 7 has been installed, and the current doors leading to the hallway and other courtrooms will eventually be closed to the public.
While there have been no major incidents at provincial court, there have been cases of people being found on the premises with weapons, sharp objects and drugs.
The goal is to make court a safer place.
“Courts are public places,” Pike said. “They can also be dangerous places because of the nature and diversity of interests of the people who attend.
“It’s important that access to justice be improved by ensuring that those accused of crimes, witnesses, media representatives, members of the general public, staff and judges are safe.
“The degree of danger can be reduced by eliminating the presence of weapons and other nefarious items from the court environment.”
Pike anticipates that when the new system gets up and running, it will initially slow things down, as it does at an airport.
Members of the public will have to pass through metal detectors. If further screening is required, people will be asked to go to a private room for a more thorough search.
Pike acknowledged that some members of the public may be frustrated with having to undergo extensive screening.
“But I think people feel the same way we do about it,” Pike said.
“It’s characteristic; an unfortunate part of modern-day life.
“It’s an inconvenience we have to go through to keep all of us safe.”
There’s no firm date for when the screening will begin. It was supposed to be in place by September, but that date was extended to allow inspectors time to ensure all building-code regulations have been met.
Staff from the Department of Transportation and Works have been taking photos and inspecting the renovations on the fourth floor over the past few weeks.
The new security perimeter required substantial government funding.
When contacted by The Telegram, Department of Justice spokeswoman Jennifer Tulk said Minister Felix Collins wants to wait until the official launch to talk about the government’s role.
That will happen, Tulk said, “very soon.”
Meanwhile, she said there are no immediate plans to implement the system at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court. Tulk said the priority has been provincial court, due in large part to its location in Atlantic Place, where other businesses operate and there is open access to the building.
Other big changes planned for provincial court this year are expanded technology in courtrooms and improved court scheduling.
Pike said initiatives and pilot projects that were started in 2010 will be improved upon this year.
“The administration of criminal justice will take full advantage of these improvements and find innovative ways for technology to be employed to create a more efficient justice system,” he said.
Technology such as video conferencing has made it possible for lawyers, witnesses and people accused of crimes to make court appearances without physically having to be in the court room.
This saves the court having to have suspects driven to and from court for brief appearances.
Such transportation is expensive, disruptive to custodial institutions and dangerous, Pike pointed out.
Now, people accused of crimes will only be brought to court when their attendance is required, which is usually when evidence is presented.
The video conferencing system currently links provincial court with Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, but it’s expected to be extended to other correctional facilities and healthcare institutions provincewide.
Last year, a new telephone system for lawyers representing clients in court was introduced. CourtCall, as it’s known, has been used throughout the province for more than 500 court appearances.
The way it works is that a lawyer wanting to appear in court via telephone on behalf of a client contacts CourtCall, a centralized agency.
Agency staff co-ordinate the lawyer’s phone appearance and charge a small fee to the lawyer using the service, before the actual court call is placed.
Not all lawyers like the system, but Pike says it makes the court more efficient.
This year, CourtCall will be expanded to communities serviced by circuit courts.
Also in 2010, a new system of assigning cases to court rooms and judges was introduced, known as Case Assignment and Retrieval (CASE).
This year, Pike said the system will be refined with automated computer technology and should lead to more cases being settled more quickly.
“This system would allow for surplus or overbooking of cases to be heard by the court in order to reduce the loss of sitting time, which happens when cases which don’t proceed due to adjournments or last-minute guilty pleas,” Pike explained.
“These scheduling efficiencies, along with the rationalization and reduction of unproductive court appearances, will benefit everyone in the justice system in 2011.”