By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
A violent incident at Cobourg’s Provincial Offences court in September has brought home the need for beefed-up security at these sessions, Court Services Manager Randy Home told the Finance and Audit Committee of Northumberland County council at its meeting this week.
Home reported on the evolving situation that has eroded court security to this point with a comprehensive report on the evolution of Provincial Offences court service in the county.
It was about a quarter-century ago that the province downloaded the costs for providing police court security at Provincial Courts to the municipalities where those courts were located. In Northumberland at the time, that included Cobourg, Port Hope, Brighton and Trent Hills.
The Town of Cobourg requested in 2003 that that security become a county expense, and the county disbursed funds to each municipality for its courts – the lion’s share ($275,000 out of the $302,500 total) to Cobourg because of the much higher cost of security at the William Street courthouse as compared to the smaller satellite locations in the other municipalities. And in the ensuing years, the other three courts have closed.
Vigourous lobbying by municipalities and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario won the province’s 2008 commitment for a gradual upload of these costs back to the province, but the province capped that commitment in 2018 and there is no indication the upload will be completed.Beginning in 2019, a minimum of one Cobourg Police Service constable was assigned regularly to be present in the Provincial Offences courtroom during scheduled proceedings. Later that year, a decision was made to institute a single point of access at the Cobourg courthouse. This access point was staffed with a constable, increasing the demands on the CPS – but then COVID-19 came along and closed the POA system to personal appearances until May 2022.
Even then, not very many individuals opted to attend proceedings in person, and POA staff learned that the CPS personnel were no longer assigned to the courtroom but were on patrol in the building (unless there was some reason to identify that an attendee who might pose a safety risk).
While two special constables are still dedicated to the front entrance, the other four access points to the building are locked but not monitored or alarmed, posing the risk that someone could enter unnoticed at any time someone else uses one of these doors as an exit.
While the backlog of cases (due to COVID restrictions) has been almost eliminated, remaining cases tend to be challenging, contested cases where defendants choose to appear and make their arguments – sometimes accompanied by supporters who can be disruptive. Staff report an increase in aggression and contempt toward the judicial system, as well as an erosion of decorum.
On Sept. 20, 2023, the situation escalated to physical violence, when the lone officer was overpowered by an aggressive defendant being sentenced. Two county staffers present activated panic buttons and helped subdue the defendant until a second officer could arrive to assist – more than two minutes later.
Home noted the financial aspect of the picture. Last year, county taxpayers came up with $275,000 of the 2023 court security costs of $730,000.
But that doesn’t address staffing concerns, he said, and “with no guarantee of dedicated court security, POA staff have to pre-identify persons they believe may present a risk and notify court security of the concern.”
And even with an officer present Sept. 20, there was what he termed “a violent struggle.”
In effect, he continued, basic service level standards for court security need to be part of council’s annual review of court security funding – even if it means contracting private security for the 50 court days per year this would be required.
While the Ministry of the Attorney General has increased its expectations, Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Moore said, its funding has been stagnant since 2008.
Even apart from the funding challenge, Moore voiced the concerns for a safe working environment for county employees. And Councillor Brian Ostrander pointed out that requiring more CPS constables makes the burden fall inequitably on the backs of that town’s taxpayers.
The motion passed by the committee reaffirms its commitment (up to $275,000) to the Town of Cobourg for security costs, but adds the condition that the Provincial Offences courtroom will always have a special CPS constable assigned to be present for all scheduled POA proceedings.
It also recommended that county council undertake a full discussion of this issue at its Dec. 6 special budget meeting.