Thousands of knives are removed every year from people entering court buildings, the head of the court service has revealed, justifying security checks that barristers have branded intrusive and criticised for causing delays.
Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), told delegates at the Bar Council’s annual conference in London on Saturday that 8,000 knives had been confiscated in 2017 and that 5,000 had already been removed this year.
She accepted that barristers had not been carrying weapons, but said she could not ask security staff to work on the basis that “people look OK” and to check only members of the public.
She spoke after revealing on Twitter at the end of last week that a security guard working at court in Bromley had been suspended by the contractor Mitie. Barrister Becky Owen had earlier complained, also on Twitter, that he had asked her to “spread your legs” during a security check, after she had refused to empty the contents of her bag.
Ms Acland-Hood said in a tweet that the language used by the male guard “wasn’t appropriate”.
In further tweets she said the contractor had also issued an instruction that the security team will have “refresher training”, but explained that, when being checked using a security wand, people are asked to stand with their feet shoulder-width apart.
The incident came on the day that HMCTS announced that the trial of an ID scheme to enable legal professionals to get into courts without undergoing security checks, would be extended to five more court centres.
Since August, courts in Brighton, Maidstone, Southwark, Tameside and Wood Green have been piloting the app developed by the Bar Council, which allows barristers to enter using a digital ID card on their phone.
From today, the scheme is being extended to courts in Chester, Nottingham, Portsmouth, St Albans and Swansea.
Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council’s legal services committee, revealed that the Bar Council had spent £50,000 in developing the app, and invited HMCTS to reimburse the money spent.
Ms Acland-Hood declined to do so. She said it was “really good that we doing it together”, but the scheme benefited the Bar Council’s members and it was therefore right that the Bar paid for it.
Where barristers use the ID, she confirmed that one in ten would still be checked. She explained that this had to be done as legal professionals still brought “sharps” into the building, which ran the risk that they could be used as a weapon by others.
Ms Acland-Hood said that she was searched when she went into courts, which was right
Following complaints from barristers, she said “specific guidance” has been given to security staff not to confiscate iPad stands, but added that long umbrellas would be removed as they were not needed in a courtroom.
On other subjects, she said was pleased with the feedback from the online divorce procedure, while more broadly she accepted that there were challenges for HMCTS due to volumes of work and a shortage of judges.
While the situation was not improving as fast as she would have liked, she said that more judges were “coming on stream”.
Ms Acland-Hood accepted that there could have been better communication over elements of the £1.2bn court modernisation programme, which was heavily criticised by the MPs on the public accounts committee, but said that political events, including the snap election, had affected the timing of announcements.
She defended the decision, announced earlier this month, to press ahead with the trial of flexible court operating hours, that would see courts sitting earlier in the morning and later into the evening, in family and civil courts.
She said HMCTS had listened to the concerns raised about implementing the scheme in criminal courts and decided not to go ahead with it, but said that the same concerns did not apply in the same way in the other courts.
Ms Acland-Hood stressed that participation would be voluntary and that the operation of the scheme would be evaluated before being extended.
On court closures, she was not able to state how many of the 121 courts that have been closed have been sold or how much had been raised by their sale.
But she said the figure was higher than the service had previously expected and confirmed that all money raised was kept by HMCTS and not given to the Treasury.