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Phoenix House in Smithfield, Dublin, where the incident occurred in December last year. Google Maps

Concern at increasing levels of 'aggression, threats and violence' towards barristers

The Bar Council is calling for an increased garda presence at courts and for screening facilities to be installed at all courthouses.

THE BAR COUNCIL has expressed concern about security at court buildings across the country and the safety of legal staff working at them. 

A survey by the council at the start of this year found more than half of barristers have experienced aggression or threats either at the courts or as a result of proceedings. 

In December last year, The Phoenix House building, which houses the Family Courts, was put on lockdown after a man entered the court with an imitation gun. 

The incident was resolved peacefully and the man has since been charged with possession of an imitation firearm, false imprisonment of two women and one count of threatening to kill and cause serious harm.

Members of the legal profession in the aftermath claimed this incident highlighted a broader problem with security at the courts. 

The Courts Service did change security arrangements at Phoenix House after the incident including the introduction of security screening at the main entrance and security patrols.

‘Steadily increasing’

However the Council of The Bar of Ireland is calling for an increased security presence at and the installation of screening at all courthouses across the country. 

The council told that the “prevalence of aggression, threats and violence towards barristers in the course of their professional work has been steadily increasing over the last number of years”.

The Bar Council said on foot of incidents like the one at Phoenix House, it conducted a survey in January this year on security at the courts.

It found more than half of respondents said they had experienced aggression, threats or violence in a court setting or as a result of court proceedings, in person, on social media, via text or otherwise.

These experiences mainly occurred in cases relating to family law (44%), criminal law (36%), debt/repossession (32%) and child care (12%).

Less than 7% of those who have experienced acts of aggression, threats or violence reported the incidents to the authorities in the Courts Service. The majority of respondents said an increased garda presence in court buildings is essential as a deterrent against this kind of behaviour. 

The Bar Council said the introduction of security screening at the entrance to all courthouses and the installation of panic buttons throughout the courthouses was also recommended.

“Feedback from the survey also referenced the lack of facilities available in the courts, in particular inadequate consultation facilities, and the absence of a restaurant facility for members of the public in the Four Courts.

“There is now no public venue on site for clients to take time out from what are often stressful circumstances.”

Screening facilities

The council said the Courts Service had responded swiftly to the incident that took place in December last year and acknowledged that new security measures have been put in place. 

Representatives of The Bar of Ireland met with Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, at a meeting in late January this year and raised concerns about security. 

They warned that there was a risk that similar incidents could occur at Dolphin House family law court in Dublin – where a judge was assaulted back in 2015 – or “in any number of courthouses” in the future. 

The council also wrote to the Chief Justice this year to make a number of recommendations including increased garda and private security presence, an audit of facilities at all courthouses to identify risks, the installation of security screening facilities and panic buttons and an improvement in consultation and ‘time-out’ facilities. 

It also called for the establishment of a representative group for all users of the courts to meet and provide regular feedback on security issues. 

The Bar Council said it was told by the Courts Service in March that a review of security in the courts in 2015 had addressed many of its recommendations.

The council is now calling for the full implementation of these recommendations that were made in 2015. 

“The Bar of Ireland will continue to actively engage with the Courts Service in relation to security in courthouses to ensure that members of the Law Library are in a position to carry out their professional role without fear or threat of such serious incidents reoccurring.”

A spokesperson for the Courts Service sid there is ongoing liaison with An Gard Síochána on security in courts. 

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