Family Court lawyer Brintyn Smith has spoken out about being attacked in a lift at the Whangārei Law Courts. Photo / Michael Cunningham/Supplied
A lawyer attacked in the Whangārei courthouse lift has spoken out about the injuries he suffered and the ongoing effects that could keep him away from any courthouse building in the coming days, or even
Family lawyer Brintyn Smith, of AlexanderChambers in Whangārei, was on his way to court last Thursday when he was violently confronted in the courthouse lift. Emergency services would later rush him to Whangārei Hospital in a serious condition.
Smith suffered extensive bruising, fractured thyroid cartilage, a split lip that required stitches and a concussion but was able to return home that night.
“I feel like absolute crap,” he said.
Whether Smith, who practises family law in Whangārei and Auckland, will return to the courtroom remains up in the air.
“At this stage, I don’t see a return to Whangārei or to any court soon. In truth … [I’m] not in a space to think about that at the moment. I am just taking it day by day.
“Physically, with time I am going to be okay. It’s the impact mentally and the concussion that will take some time.”
The attack on him was both surprising and not surprising, Smith said, given that family lawyers often felt a risk to their safety.
“It’s something we all fear could happen. I am aware the fear is not just one family lawyers have but one our other court colleagues have.”
He hoped something positive would come from the “awful situation” he experienced.
Smith had since received tremendous support from whānau, friends and colleagues nationwide and overseas, which he has found comforting and reassuring.
On the day of the attack, AlexanderChambers legal assistant Sharon Milligan got a call relaying what had taken place.
“He was on the ground in the recovery position outside the elevator and was very scared, really distressed. He was saying, ‘get him away from me’, because he thought the offender was still around,” she recalled.
“I laid down on the ground with him just to comfort him until the paramedics helped him into the ambulance.”
Milligan stuck by his side on the way to the hospital, where she stayed until his family arrived.
Smith’s chambers colleague Sarah Armstrong was shocked when she saw photos showing the state Smith was in.
Armstrong said Smith was an “awesome” and tireless lawyer dedicated to his job and committed to getting good outcomes for children.
“We doubt he’ll ever want to work back up here again … physically, his injuries are healing well but he’s clearly in a lot of pain due to the extent of his facial injuries.”
To think this has happened to a well-respected colleague was “absolutely sickening”, Armstrong said.
“I’ve been a lawyer for 29 years and it’s getting worse by the day. I moved up from Auckland a year ago and it’s the same New Zealand-wide. It’s so bad for us as lawyers for children in particular.
“I feel in fear for my safety on a weekly basis, whether it’s going to and from the court, arriving and leaving the office, even in the office, at home visits. We have abusive stuff being said about us on social media but the physical danger is really high and that’s the scariest part.”
Armstrong said in the last decade, people have lost respect for those in the community like lawyers, judges, doctors and police officers who were helping people.
“Something has to change. This is really bad and I fear it will continue to get worse. We are so in danger every day, just going about our work.”
Armstrong said Smith should never have experienced what he did that day.
“He was just doing his job. He was in a courthouse, where we go every day to access justice for the clients that we represent. It should be a safe place. At Whangārei Court, they have security guards scanning people as they come in the main entrance but everywhere else in that court building, you are actually on your own pretty much,” she said.
There were individual interview rooms lawyers could use to see clients, she said, but there was no security in there, nor in the actual courtrooms, unless specifically requested.
At other courts, Armstrong said security guards regularly did circuits around each floor and checked all the interview rooms and the courtrooms.
“The presence of security guards helps. But there should be more cameras such as in the elevators, we should be carrying panic alarms, and lawyers should be able to access the court buildings through the judges’ doors with a swipe card and scan themselves in and out.”
The Ministry of Justice is carrying out an investigation into the attack. Ministry chief operating officer Carl Crafar said security measures, including screening and the presence of court security officers, would remain in place at the courthouse.
A 36-year-old travel agent appeared in the Whangārei District Court on Friday in relation to the alleged assault on Smith.
He is facing one charge of injuring with intent to injure and was remanded in custody to reappear on March 20, when he’s expected to seek bail.
He was granted name suppression.