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Lawyer safety on thin ice

News

Cite as: August 2015 89 (8) LIJ, p.19

Violent and abusive clients are an increasing threat to the lawyers who are trying to help them. 

Luke Docherty can bear witness to rising levels of violence against lawyers, particularly family and criminal law practitioners.

The former president of the Bendigo Law Association was attacked in a Bendigo courtroom after an unfavourable sentence. “I was sitting down taking notes, and after the sentence was announced I got punched to the head about three or four times,” Mr Docherty said.

The situation was made worse by the poor design of the courtroom.

Protective services officers were too far away to prevent the attack, as were the police prosecutors.

“I was stuck in my seat, I couldn’t really move so I just had to sit there and cop it until he was tackled,” Mr Docherty said. A lawyer with Stuthbridge Legal, Mr Docherty said it was the first time he had been attacked by a client, but it wasn’t the first time he’s felt threatened.

Family lawyers have also reported rising levels of violence and have been advised to take extra security measures to protect staff, including the installation of bulletproof glass.

A leading Melbourne lawyer, speaking to the LIJ on condition of anonymity, said lawyers are facing a greater level of violence and harassment – including death threats – than she has seen in more than three decades in the profession. One cause is more cases involving the drug ice. “They [ice users] act as if they are beyond the law; they do not care about the consequences of threats or actions,” she said.

In its submission to the National Ice Taskforce, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) said its lawyers are increasingly coming into contact with volatile clients affected by the drug ice.

VLA managing director Bevan Warner said some lawyers have told them more than 50 per cent of their clients were affected by the drug.

“By the time our lawyers see them [the clients], they can be aggressive, distressed and difficult to help,” Mr Warner said.

Because of the very nature of the work that they do, lawyers can never be guaranteed that they won’t face a potentially violent or abusive situation.

However, there is more that lawyers, law firms and the government could do to improve safety.

Mr Docherty, an accredited specialist in criminal law, said the Bendigo courtroom he was attacked in is rarely used, but security could be improved across the entire facility. He said there is a stark difference in security features at regional courthouses compared with their metropolitan counterparts.

“The main disparity is the security screenings,” Mr Docherty said. “And there is at least some room for separation of parties and rooms for meetings with clients which are not always available in the regions.”

South-west Victorian solicitor Ian Pugh agreed. Together with the Victoria Police Association and the LIV, Mr Pugh has been campaigning for a multi-million dollar upgrade to the Colac Police Station and Court Complex.

“The current facilities have passed their use-by date,” Mr Pugh said. “We have to sit outside the cell or we sit inside the cell at the police station, which is not good for privacy but it’s also a potential safety issue obviously, especially if a client is coming down off [the drug] ice.”

Mr Pugh, who established an action group, has also voiced concerns about a lack of space to separate parties in family law cases.

Local state member, Liberal Terry Mulder has indicated support for an upgrade of the facilities. The project wasn’t in the Victorian government’s 2015-16 budget however a new $73 million court complex is going ahead in Shepparton.

Mr Pugh said it’s only a matter of time before a solicitor is assaulted at Colac. “If you have a client that doesn’t like your advice, and that can happen, there’s the potential for assault,” he said.

In a statement, the government said it will review the safety of the Colac Court Complex as part of a state-wide safety audit to be completed by the middle of next year.

LIV president Katie Miller said the need for better facilities is paramount. LIV CEO Nerida Wallace said the issue would be raised with Court Services Victoria.

Protected persons’ space

If the Victorian government were to invest in an upgrade of court facilities in regional Victoria, it could look at the Ringwood Court Complex for inspiration on the design.

The former sheriff’s office was converted into a protected persons’ space in 2012 to provide physical safety for applicants in intervention orders relating to domestic violence. But the space is also providing greater security for lawyers through the provision of meeting rooms, which have safety buttons that alert protective services officers (PSOs) if there is an issue.

“I’ve been known to knock on their [the PSO’s] door to ask them to follow or just keep an eye on certain people because I’ve just got a bad vibe,” principal lawyer at the Eastern Community Legal Centre Belinda Lo said.

“If you work well with the court staff and the support staff and with the PSOs and other lawyers, we can actually keep people safe, and we don’t need to tell the clients that that’s going to happen and it doesn’t compromise our cases either.”

Law firms must think about staff safety

The family lawyer the LIJ spoke to urged law firms to ensure no one is admitted to the premises who cannot be identified.

She also recommended law firms:

  • consider installing bulletproof glass, monitored security and CCTV cameras;
  • discuss arrivals and departures;
  • never leave staff alone at night;
  • have more than one way to leave the office;
  • be careful if leaving the office and parking cars.
  • Another law firm in the south-eastern suburbs recently had a client confront staff in the office. The client, who was unable to see his children because of his recent behaviour, became agitated and started shouting and screaming.

    The man eventually left and the door was locked amid fears he would return.

    “We were concerned because we didn’t know what was going to happen and it is better to err on the side of caution,” the principal lawyer said.

    The firm now has policies and procedures in place to deal with similar situations in the future.

    And the principal lawyer said all law firms, not just those involved in family law, should have similar discussions with their staff.

    “I think what we’d do is have an understanding that they can leave the office; there is no need for them to remain there and they can certainly call the police.”

    Having been attacked in Bendigo, Mr Docherty said he is now more conscious of his surroundings. He always sits closest to the door when interviewing a client. And if someone appears to be affected by drugs or alcohol then Mr Docherty won’t interview them that day.

    “It’s just about putting proper processes in place,” he said.

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