At every courthouse nationwide stands a team of security guards ready and waiting to screen all visitors – regardless of whether you’re a defendant or a King’s Counsel.
Passing through the security check, which includes a full-body metal detector and an x-ray machine for bags, is mandatory to enter the courthouse.
But according to new figures not everyone is bringing in items deemed safe or appropriate – and this comes at a time when there are growing concerns about the safety of people in court.
Earlier this month family lawyer Brintyn Smith was rushed to hospital with serious injuries after being attacked in a Whangārei courthouse lift. A 36-year-old man has since been charged.
Ministry of Justice data supplied by National courts spokesperson Chris Penk shows the number of prohibited items discovered by officers jumped 22 per cent last year, with 710 items stopped at the door.
That’s in contrast to 2021, when just 580 items were found, while 672 were discovered in 2020. However, the figures from those two years, particularly in Auckland, were likely influenced by court closures during various lockdowns.
Overwhelmingly, most items seized were either cannabis or cannabis-related utensils. There were more than 100 instances where the class C drug was found by security officers and a further 15 where they confiscated cannabis grinders. Around 45 cannabis “smoking devices”, mainly pipes, were also found.
Following close behind were methamphetamine utensils, with 91 glass pipes seized. Some even attempted to come into court with the drug on their person or in a bag; the actual drug was seized on 10 occasions. LSD and MDMA were also found on a handful of occasions.
Most of the remaining prohibited items were weapons – with hundreds seized.
The apparent weapon of choice for most was credit card knives – typically an aluminium rectangle the size of a credit card that can be kept in a wallet, with a small concealed knife that flicks outwards. More than 60 of the knives were discovered across the country.
Knuckle dusters were also common, with 46 seized over the course of the year.
There were other knives seized, ranging in size from full kitchen knives to key knives, and a handful of pocket knives. Butterfly knives were also common, and two sharpened screwdrivers were seized.
Ammunition was also seized 27 times, with some people carrying multiple rounds.
At the more bizarre end of the scale, one person attempted to bring fireworks into court, while another attempted to enter wearing a spiked ring on his finger. Another had two cans of beer taken off them.
Trends were visible throughout different regions.
Auckland District Court appeared to be a hotbed for methamphetamine, with 13 meth pipes discovered over the year. In the same timeframe, just two cannabis pipes were found.
Auckland had the largest number of prohibited items, followed by the Bay of Plenty.
Earlier this month, a Dunedin man was caught after a bag scan revealed a knuckle-duster, a bong, a gang patch and meth paraphernalia.
Courthouse safety questioned
The rise in seized contraband comes as the safety of lawyers and court staff is front and centre.
Speaking to NZME earlier this week, Whangārei lawyer and Northland Criminal Bar Association co-chairman Wayne McKean said he had heard of recent incidents where lawyers felt at risk.
“Just in the last six months, I’ve heard of a lawyer being put in a position where other lawyers were concerned for their safety,” he said.
The Law Society has concerns too.
“The events in Whangarei have heightened – and in some cases confirmed – the safety concerns of lawyers right throughout New Zealand,” a spokesperson said.
“The views of local lawyers and their communities are critical. The Law Society is participating in the Whangarei review, and we expect there will be some learnings from this.”
Concerns from lawyers are varied, the society says, and includes security practices and infrastructure, and even the physical design of some courthouses.
“We can’t assume that simply increasing security officers will be sufficient to mitigate the risks that lawyers and other court users are facing.”
The society is in the process of discussions with representatives across all regions about security concerns.
The Ministry’s health, safety and security lead, Maeve Neilson, says that in the last Budget, $22 million was allocated for the next four years, which will see a further 66 court security officers (CSOs) hired nationwide.
Currently, there are around 320 CSOs across the country, occasionally supplemented by private security guards.
Why court security isn’t like other security
Court security officers, or CSOs, are not typical security guards. The guardians of one of New Zealand’s three branches of government, court security have special powers to remove people from the court or detain them.
The rules covering security staff are contained in specialist legislation – the Courts Security Act. The act grants powers to search, seize and detain – but in significantly more limited circumstances than police officers.
The distinction between arrest and detainment is important; while court security can hold you, it cannot be for an extended period of time, and only a police officer can make the decision to charge you.
If an item is deemed illegal or offensive, it is seized and the person is detained. The item is then handed over to police, and officers make a decision on what to do with the offender.
Offensive weapons, such as credit card knives or knuckledusters, would result in the owner being detained and the items seized.
With other less brazen objects such as a pair of scissors, court security staff would determine if the person held them with the purpose of using them as a weapon. If so, the item would be seized and the person detained.
If no nefarious intent was identified, the item would be temporarily seized and the owner asked to fill out a temporary custody form. The scissors could then be collected upon leaving. Items left for longer than 10 days are destroyed.
Often, police will assist court security in the event something kicks off in the court. It is not unusual to see uniformed officers and court security working together.
While court security’s most visible task is manning the entrance, officers also play a vital role within the courtroom, leading offenders in and out of the dock and maintaining order in the galleries.
Unlike standard security guards, court security often carry handcuffs.
– Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice reporter