An altercation at Stratford Magistrates’ Court has fuelled anxiety about lawyer safety. With security at family and coroners’ courts also under scrutiny, what can be done? Would airport-style measures work?

Lawyers’ concerns over court security escalated this week following allegations about an incident at Stratford Magistrates’ Court (pictured). Duty solicitor Dele Johnson told the Gazette that he had struggled to breathe while being pinned down by ‘four or five’ security staff.

‘I felt I was fighting for my life against five grown men to stop them holding me and grabbing me,’ Johnson said, adding that he would not be returning to the Stratford court.  

The Metropolitan Police said: ‘On Thursday, 2 May, police received a report of an altercation outside Stratford Magistrates’ Court the previous day. Enquiries are ongoing; no arrests have been made.’

Johnson’s concerns are seemingly shared by the wider legal community. Top London set Garden Court Chambers this week announced that it would not send pupils to Stratford until security issues had been ‘fully investigated and resolved’.

It added: ‘As a chambers we have a duty to ensure our pupils’ safety and wellbeing. In light of these reports, we consider that we would risk breaching those obligations should we require them to attend Stratford Magistrates’ Court without the [alleged incidents] having been fully investigated and resolved. As such, we shall not be sending our pupils to this court until that happens.’

The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association has already spoken out on the issue. In a letter to HM Courts & Tribunals Service it said: ‘Given the seriousness of the alleged incident and the already documented history of complaints against security staff at Stratford Magistrates’ Court (which are already the subject of an official complaint by this association), we have no confidence at the moment that those tasked with ensuring the safety of our members and colleagues at this court are capable of doing so.’

Security is also a concern in other parts of the justice system. Family Division chief Sir Andrew McFarlane told MPs last month: ‘If you were asking judges [about the current state of health of the family justice system] they would say first of all that there is a deal of apprehension about security.’

Referring to an assault on a family judge last year, he said:  ‘The striking incident at Milton Keynes in November… the fact that happened and that security arrangements were breached to a significant degree has had an impact right across the system. In civil justice as well, and judges think “well it could have been me”.

‘We are working through what the ramifications will be, what changes need to be made because it is quite striking the difference between security arrangements in the criminal court and those in the family court.’

'If you were asking judges [about the current state of health of the family justice system] they would say first of all that there is a deal of apprehension about security'

Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division

Safety in coroners’ courts is raised by chief coroner Judge Thomas Teague KC in his latest annual report. He describes security arrangements around the country as ‘rarely adequate’.

Following the Stratford incident, an HMCTS spokesperson said: ‘These are serious complaints and we are urgently investigating them as a matter of priority. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. Our security measures are designed to protect the safety of all court users within our premises and remain under constant review. They are put in place in consultation with judiciary and the police.’

A Law Society spokesperson said it had been made aware of ‘a number of serious incidents’ at Stratford which indicated a ‘pattern of alleged rogue behaviour’ and was ‘making urgent enquiries of HMCTS to establish the facts and secure assurances as to the safety of our members’.

The Gazette made a number of approaches to OCS, the outsourcer understood to be responsible for providing security at Stratford, but received no response.

What can be done to ensure security while avoiding unnecessarily invasive searches? One suggestion comes from a report by the group Transform Justice on CourtWatch London, a mass court observation project, to be published later this month. The report’s findings summarise the observations of 83 court watchers who visited London magistrates’ courts over six months in 2023, between them observing more than 1,000 hearings. The report suggests upgrading court security technology to airport-style  scanning machines.

Penelope Gibbs, Transform Justice director, said: ‘None of the courtwatchers objected to being searched and most felt security staff were respectful, but they found the instructions to empty pockets and bags a bit “excessive”. Airport security searches are not nearly so intrusive, so why can’t court security staff use the same security machinery and approach?’

The obstacle, as ever, is likely to be cost. But the status quo appears untenable.