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The collateral damage of the drive for more stringent court security

Penelope Gibbs
26 Apr 2024

Stratford magistrates’ court in east London has been the site of several recent incidents of overzealous security including this one:

“On 25th January 2024 one female solicitor who went through the metal detector and wand search without setting them off was still subjected to a pat-down search. There were approximately 4 security staff, two of whom were male, dealing with her and due to the unprofessional and discourteous way in which she was being spoken to by one of the (male) officers in particular, she referred to him as an “idiot”. She was then forcibly ejected from the court building by two male security officers, had her lunch thrown onto the pavement and was denied re-entry (despite the fact that she was appearing as a duty solicitor that day).”

Solicitors who are members of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) have an ID card, which gives them privileged access to the courts compared to members of the public, witnesses and defendants. But the guidance says they can still be searched to check that they are not bringing risky items into the court. All magistrates’ courts have security checks and there have been complaints about them for years, but Stratford is the site of the worst recent incidents. The LCCSA has officially complained to the courts service. As well as the report of the duty lawyer being thrown out, more than one female solicitor has reported being searched totally inappropriately: “(1) hands being placed inside the neckline of her dress during a pat down search; (2) patting down the sides of the breasts and in between them during another search and (3) having her leg felt under her dress up to her inner thigh, stopping barely short of her crotch.”

The LCCSA’s complaint letter reveals why Stratford is particularly antsy. The trials of many climate protesters are held there and it’s the site of “some disruption inside the court building involving people super-gluing themselves to benches.” 

If security staff resort to physically searching lawyers, what do they do to public observers? One of our courtwatchers (public observers who joined our CourtWatch London programme) went to Stratford in mid March to observe a specific trial. He also was thrown out though this was even before being searched. After arriving at the entrance, he was questioned by a court officer with a clipboard about why he was there, whose trial he was there for and which courtroom. He said he was  there to observe a trial, and that no other reason was needed. The manager was called, who quizzed him further. Despite being polite and cooperative, he was continually refused entry for various (inconsistent) reasons. Finally he was grabbed by two security guards, physically moved outside and told not to try to re-enter. None of the security guards or court staff would give their name to the observer.

If we’d only heard of problems at Stratford, we could dismiss it as an isolated problem. But our courtwatchers also reported over-intrusive questioning at Croydon magistrates’ court. In December 2023, a courtwatcher went into the public gallery. He’d observed in this courthouse many times previously but “for the first time was asked my name by the usher…when I said that I hadn’t had to give it before, she produced an official-looking form and said that the judge needed to know who was in the courtroom. I said that I’d give it voluntarily (and did) but that I didn’t need to.” Another courtwatcher noted “I was asked for ID – to show that I was a volunteer for CourtWatch. My name and the organisation I was volunteering for was recorded by the court usher. I had to get permission from the court to be able to observe the proceedings.” All these incidents totally contravene the principle of open justice – that security checks should be proportionate and that people who go to court to observe should never be pressured to reveal their identity or why they are there. The only risk of not identifying visitors is that a witness may hear evidence before they give their own (thus prejudicing the trial), but it is up to court staff, judges and lawyers to ensure that witnesses know what they should and should not observe.

It has to be said that the vast majority of our courtwatchers – 97% – found security staff respectful. But it would be great to resolve the remaining problems. In our forthcoming report (out 22nd May) on the CourtWatch London project we suggest upgrading the technology available to courts to the kind of X-ray scanning machines used in airports. And we recommend more staff training in the principles of open justice so everyone understands why visitors to courts should not have to justify themselves. But the incidents at Stratford magistrates’ court need addressing urgently. No one wants more protesters gluing themselves to court benches, but the measures taken to avoid this happening seem disproportionate and risk putting people off from visiting courts.