Rise in number of weapons seized at NI courthouses ‘very worrying’

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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.

Items seized at Courts

Items seized at Courts

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

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.

The items seized at Londonderry Courthouse were six knives, a sharp object, three screwdrivers, pliers, a screw wrench and a bottle of vodka.

Only three items across Northern Ireland 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.