NAPE urges government to act on court safety advice

The union that represents court staff in Newfoundland and Labrador believes the province is sitting on recommendations that could make the courts safer for employees and the public.

Province keeping reviews of sheriff's office and legal aid under wraps until 2014 budget

NAPE president Carol Furlong says the government should act now on recommendations in reviews of the sheriff's office and legal aid. (CBC)

The union that represents court staff in Newfoundland and Labrador believes the province is sitting on recommendations that could make the courts safer for employees and the public.

NAPE president Carol Furlong says given recent violence at the penitentiary, as well as attacks on sheriff's officers at provincial court, Justice Minister Darin King should release the findings of two reviews.

"My concern is if there are recommendations there that are going to be acted on, then they should do it now," Furlong told CBC News. "We've seen assaults, continuous assaults on court staff over a period of time, and in the past few weeks we've seen that escalated somewhat. So I think that if they're going to (act on the recommendations), they really should not wait. They should release those findings now and start that process immediately."

Several sheriff's officers have been victims of assaults by prisoners at the provincial courts in St. John's in recent weeks. (CBC)
All departments of government, including Justice, were hit with layoffs and cuts to services in last year's budget. But the outcry from the public and legal professionals over staff reductions in the court system only got louder as time went on.

That prompted the government to take a another look through external reviews of both the sheriff's office and legal aid.

On Feb. 10, Justice Minister Darin King announced he had received both reports, but said the details and decisions on recommendations wouldn't be released until this year's budget is brought down in the spring.

"Our ultimate goal of a responsive and efficient justice system in Newfoundland and Labrador remains, and these reviews will be a valuable tool in assisting us with making some important decisions in the near future," he said

Attacks on staff

Furlong cited several recent attacks on court staff, including a female sheriff's officer who had a clump of hair ripped from her scalp, and another officer who's been off work after suffering whiplash and neck injuries during an attack.

Last week, an officer was bitten twice on the arm, while another was kicked in the groin.

Furlong also said there have been "countless" other assaults on staff that don't make the news, as well as incidents where reporters themselves have been assaulted or threatened.

She said NAPE warned government before last year's budget that the sheriff's office, in particular, couldn't sustain layoffs.

"We said that was going to be problematic, that we didn't think they could or should have layoffs there ... that we didn't feel there was an excess (of staff). There was, as we know, an outcry over that. And we believe the findings are that there should not have been layoffs, and in fact there should probably be more staff and enhanced security measures in place," she said.

Big mistake

Furlong said if the recommendations bear that out, waiting until the budget to act is a big mistake.

The government, meanwhile, says it's sticking by its plan to keep the review and recommendations under wraps until the budget is brought down in late March or early April.

"There doesn't appear to be any urgency to some of this, when in fact there is," said Furlong. "The fact that we have sheriff's who are being attacked and assaulted - and this could be anyone in the courts ... a judge, a clerk, members of the public ...

"We're saying to them, why are you going to sit on that for awhile? If you're going to act on it, why don't you do it now? Why don't you recognize that there's a level of urgency and immediacy to this, and address it? You can still make reference to it in your budget, but (act now) and, who knows, it might save somebody's life."