EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds of weapons confiscated at NI courts — and returned

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Hundreds of knives and even a knuckle-duster were confiscated from people entering courthouses in Northern Ireland last year – and returned to the owners on the way out.

The News Letter can also reveal that even illegal weapons such as lock-knives were returned, according to data obtained following a Freedom of Information request by JPI Media.

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Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) said it would be taking up the matter with private contractor G4S, which runs its courthouse security services.

In total, 439 items were confiscated at courthouse security gates last year.

This included cans of beer, whiskey, vodka, tools such as screwdrivers and stanley-knives, and even drugs.

Only three items were permanently confiscated: a bag of tablets discovered in Craigavon Courthouse in November 2018 and cannabis and a grinder seized at the same court in December 2018. Police were called both times.

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The courts service said legislation means security officers only have the power to confiscate an item until its owner leaves the building, unless it is believed to be “evidence of or in relation to an offence” in which case the attention of a police constable is required.

However, the court service said that in the case of the knuckle duster, this was an “offensive weapon and should have been retained”.

Patrick Green, the chief executive of knife-crime awareness charity The Ben Kinsella Trust, said the figures should act as a “wake-up call”.

More than two-thirds of all items seized last year (71%) were at Belfast’s Laganside Courthouse.

Aimee Stanton and Paul Crowe find out more...

In my days of covering the courts, I would have arrived at the gates every week and undergone a security check procedure by members of staff.

I recall handing over my mobile phone and car keys before passing through the scanner but almost every week the machine beeped and the red light flashed on because of a steel pen I forgot to surrender.

The security staff, who knew me well, would have looked at me and said: “It’s the pen, isn’t it?”

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My face would have turned the same colour as the light above me, I would apologise, and we would all laugh.

But not everything detected at the gates of courthouses is so innocent.

When we conducted an investigation into weapons seized at courthouses across Northern Ireland, it threw up something much more serious.

Hundreds of weapons and other dangerous objects have been confiscated at security gates at courts in Northern Ireland in the past two years, data sourced from Freedom of Information requests shows.

Confiscated items include lock knives, bottles of bleach and a knuckleduster, as well as drugs and alcohol.

Across the Province, 439 items were seized last year, marking a 7% rise on the year before.

There was also a slight increase in the number of knives being found on people entering court, which a leading charity has described as “very worrying”.

The vast majority of items, however, were later returned to their owners – they included illegal weapons such as four lock-knives and a knuckle-duster, our data investigation shows.

Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) said it would be taking up the matter with private contractor G4S, which runs its courthouse security services.

G4S declined to comment when presented with the findings.

Laganside Courthouse had the most items confiscated – 312, or 71% of all items confiscated in 2018.

The Royal Courts of Justice – also in Belfast – was just behind, with 99 items being confiscated; and Londonderry Courthouse followed, with 13 seizures.

Only three three items were permanently confiscated: a bag of tablets discovered in Craigavon Courthouse in November 2018 and cannabis and a grinder seized at the same court in December 2018.

Police were called both times.

It is illegal to carry a knife in public without good reason, unless it has a folding blade of three inches or less.

Lock-knives are illegal to carry in public without good reason.

It is also an offence to carry an offensive weapon, such as a knuckle-duster in public if you don’t have a valid reason to do so.

Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) said they have introduced a range of search procedures in order to provide “a safe and secure environment” for all people attending courthouses.

A spokesperson for NICTS said: “In accordance with legislation, possession of a lock-knife in a public place without good reason is an offence.

“The knuckle-duster is an offensive weapon and should have been retained.

“NICTS is working with G4S to improve the security at all court buildings and to ensure that there is clarity around the authority to confiscate and retain such items.”

Our investigation found that in 2017, 176 knives were confiscated at courthouses; but in 2018, 191 knives were seized – this is a rise of 9%, and includes legal knives such as pen knives and utility knives.

Patrick Green, chief executive of knife-crime awareness charity The Ben Kinsella Trust, said: “It is very worrying to see a rise in the number of knives confiscated in courts in Northern Ireland.

“Knife crime often behaves like a virus, left unchecked it grows and grows, leaving lasting misery in its wake.

“England and Wales are in the grip of what has been referred to as a knife crime epidemic and it is important that steps are taken early to prevent this happening in Northern Ireland.

“These figures should act as a wake-up call, we must ensure that knives and those who carry them are removed from our streets, but also that young people are educated about the dangers associated with carrying a knife.”

The purpose of our courts is to serve justice on criminal matters.

We expect weapons and dangerous items to be discussed during hearings, yes, but we do not expect hundreds of visitors to be attempting to bring them onto the premises.

If we cannot feel safe in a court building, where can we?

The items discussed in this report were stopped in their tracks from going any further than the gates.

Readers should take comfort from that.

The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

Prosecco, skateboard and darts confiscated...

The data we studied covered 2017 and 2018 – and, during this period, a total of 848 items were confiscated.

They were seized at the following courthouses: Laganside Courthouse (582); Royal Courts of Justice (225); Coleraine Courthouse (19); Londonderry Courthouse (13); Craigavon Courthouse (5); Ballymena Courthouse (2); Dungannon Courthouse (2); and Antrim Courthouse (1).

Among the more obscure items confiscated were numerous bottles of vodka and other alcoholic beverages including a bottle of Prosecco; several corkscrews; a skateboard; pliers; a drill bit; a set of darts; quite a lot of cutlery; and a toffee hammer.

Also confiscated were a paint brush and paint cleaners, a paint scraper, and paint remover.

‘The knuckle-duster is a weapon and should have been retained’

We understand Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) employs the services of G4S Secure Solutions at courthouses: so what does NICTS think about illegal items such as knuckle dusters and lock-knives being returned to people upon leaving courthouses?

Under the Justice Act, a Court Security Officer (CSO) has the power to:

l Search any person who is in or is seeking to enter a relevant courthouse and any article in the possession of such a person;

l Exclude or remove from a courthouse any person who refuses to permit a search or refuses to surrender any article in his possession which the officer reasonably believes may jeopardise the maintenance of order in the courthouse;

l Remove, exclude or restrain anybody who may jeopardise order in the courthouse.

G4S will confiscate items on entering the court house, and will return such items to the court user when they are leaving the building.

The power of retention, however, only extends until the court user is leaving the building unless the CSO reasonably believes that the article may be evidence of or in relation to an offence.

It can then either be returned or retained for a permitted period (defined as 24 hours); the permitted period being to allow the article to be drawn to the attention of a constable.

In accordance with legislation, possession of a lock-knife in a public place without good reason is an offence.

The knuckle duster is an offensive weapon and should have been retained. NICTS is working with G4S to improve the security at all court buildings and to ensure that there is clarity around the authority to confiscate and retain such items.

The legislation and the contract with G4S refers to removing offensive weapons and these are defined under the Retention of Knives in Court Regulations (NI) 2010 as introduced under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, i.e. they refer to the confiscation of knives or an article that has a blade or is sharply pointed and is made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person.

Generally, if the blade is more than three inches, G4S will seize it and either pass it to NICTS security staff or, if they suspect that it has been involved in a crime, then it will be reported to the police; below three inches it will be returned to the owner when they are leaving the building.

CSO returns the items because they are legally obliged to do so under the powers of a CSO.

What is NI Courts and Tribunals Service’s view on the findings?

The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) acknowledges the findings and has introduced a range of search procedures in order to provide a safe and secure environment for all court users.

NICTS strives to provide a safe environment for all court users; and does so with the assistance of G4S Secure Solutions (UK) Ltd (G4S), a private contractor, employed by NICTS to provide a number of security functions, including searching individuals entering court buildings.

Why are people continuing to bring weapons to courthouses despite security being in place?

The majority of items seized are miscellaneous items that court users may have on their person when entering court buildings.

Many of the items recorded such as scissors or small bladed knives are not classified/defined as weapons.

NICTS has a range of physical security measures such as archway metal detectors (AMDs), hand-held detection wands and baggage scanners at its buildings to detect items being brought into court buildings.

The purpose of Court Security Officers (CSOs) is to act on any detection indicated and exercise their legislative powers to confiscate any item that they believe may jeopardise the maintenance of order in the building.

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