New Zealand Law Society - A shocking, life-changing incident drives safety advocacy: My story

A shocking, life-changing incident drives safety advocacy: My story

A shocking, life-changing incident drives safety advocacy: My story
Brintyn Smith

Brintyn Smith is a lawyer specialising in Auckland and Northland. A terrifying and life- changing incident during the course of his work put the spotlight on court safety. Brintyn bravely shares his story with LawTalk and his work advocating for a safer work environment.

They say a life-changing event leads to reflection. So, why did I become a lawyer? For several reasons is perhaps the answer.

Firstly, at school, I was relentlessly bullied, and so were my friends. I found myself advocating not just for them but also for myself. I felt compelled to advocate for those who were the underdog.

I was also always attracted to responsibility and the privilege that comes with it. Being a lawyer, you get to speak for people who often end up sitting there silent – they trust you. That’s a real privilege.

I ultimately chose law and studied at Te Piringa, Faculty of Law at the University of Waikato.

My first legal job was as a prosecutor for the Ministry of Social Development. I soon moved into the care and protection team, which at the time was part of the Ministry of Social Development’s shared legal service. As it turned out, my journey into family law had just begun.

Being a family lawyer requires kindness, empathy, and good judgement. You need to trust your gut in this area of work. You must be able to relate to people because often you’re dealing with them at their lowest. They may have just suffered a breakup; they might feel shame. They may have been called out on behaviour, and that’s embarrassing and has a range of emotions. It really is an emotionally driven and charged space. When people are dealing with their children, they are extremely sensitive. So, it requires you to be firm but kind and empathetic.

Before 9 March 2023, I had a busy and broad family law practice. I undertook private and legal aid parenting and private relationship property work. I was available to accept Lawyer for Child and Lawyer to Assist appointments. I had three Chambers (Whangārei, Grey Lynn, and Warkworth) and employed two lawyers and two personal assistants.

I recall the 9th vividly. I think I always will for the rest of my life. It was a fairly run-of-the-mill morning. I had a coffee, left my home (in Rodney) and travelled to Whangārei. I pulled over on the way, did a routine call-over, and later made my way to Court.

I arrived at the Court just before 10:00 am. The matter I was to appear on was upstairs on level one. I entered the building, spoke with another lawyer, and, as I have routinely done, I took the lift to level one.

The lift ride turned out to be anything but routine. I was attacked by a party in the proceedings as I went to exit the lift. I ended up back inside the lift, with the doors closed, pinned under him on the floor. My head was being relentlessly beaten. I recall the blood and fear I felt as I lay face down. The more I shouted for help, the harder the blows to my head felt, the more I was beaten. I felt like it just made the situation worse. I pretended to be dead to try and get him to stop. The attack went on for what felt like a lifetime.

The lift was called to the bottom floor again, where people were able to help me. I remember people shouting at him, commotion, and the dread that filled my body as someone was tapping on my shoulder, trying to get me to stay awake while on the phone.

Fire and Emergency, Police and St John’s were quickly in attendance, and the Court was, I understand, in lockdown. Media quickly circled.

Once I was in the safety of the ambulance, I remember reassuring the ambulance officers that I wouldn’t hurt them. I did this as I was grabbing at things around me. I wanted them to know they wouldn’t get hurt doing their job. I was transported to the Whangārei Emergency Department in Status 2 condition.

I spent the remainder of the day in hospital and was later discharged to the care of my family.

I suffered several injuries (all a matter of public record) – fractured thyroid cartilage, extensive bruising, and cuts. For me, though, the two most significant injuries (in terms of impact on my life and practice) were the head (concussion) and mental injuries I sustained (PTSD).

"I have received support locally, nationally and internationally, some from unexpected places, some for specific purposes, some for all of my journey to date. I am so humbled and grateful"

The concussion took quite some time to recover from. I never fully appreciated how complex a concussion can be. It impacts everything in your life, including parenting. PTSD is equally complex. I continue to receive assistance.

The days and weeks following were sore, blurred and very odd. The first month was in hindsight, overwhelming. There were several meetings and several medical appointments, and it felt like my life just became driven by them and the District Court process that was running in tandem. I had to deal with other people’s reactions and emotions while also trying to process it myself. So, that first month – that’s particularly blurry for me. At the time, I said that I was going to take it day-by-day, and, in hindsight, that was the best strategy.

I have received support locally, nationally and internationally, some from unexpected places, some for specific purposes, some for all of my journey to date. I am so humbled and grateful.

My team, work mums and aunties, work dads and uncles, all stepped in. They took over my practice and gave me time to heal. My Chambers colleague in Whangārei was in charge of reassigning all my matters. My team rallied to support me. I owe them a lot – in my view, my life. It was a very difficult time and without that support, without the friendships that were built and ultimately strengthened through that time, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

The Family Law Section (FLS) of the New Zealand Law Society supported me tremendously. I had the Chair at the time, members of the executive and members throughout the country constantly reaching out. I remember quite fondly the call and messages from Caroline Hickman, now her Honour Judge Hickman – those were really reassuring at that time. The Family Law Section did a fundraising appeal for me, and about a month later, I received a very generous donation that my family and I were most grateful for.

The Law Association, Te Hunga Rōia, and several other organisations also helped me. Decent human beings who just so happen to be lawyers all came out and rallied.

All this support benefited me because I was given time to heal. With no choice, I stepped right back from practice for some months.

Initially, I did not see a return to the Family Court and most certainly didn’t see a return to lawyer for child work. It was too scary. Within just a few minutes in that lift, I had lost everything.

With time, healing, wise counsel, and the guidance of some good people I reconsidered this. I decided that I would return, albeit in a slightly different way. I guess there has been an element of advocacy for myself to come back: I’m not going to be bullied.

In many ways, working towards the NZLS CLE Family Law Conference 2023 was one of the key things that kept me going. I was part of the planning committee for the conference. It turned out to be a wonderful event. To be recognised and acknowledged in such a bold way was humbling and incredibly validating. It empowered me, to be honest. I had worried that I would simply become another story and be known as the ‘Whangārei incident’ and that tangible real change wouldn’t occur. The conference showed me that this may well not be the case, and I felt a responsibility to use the position I am now in for the better.

What happened has obviously impacted me and will continue to do so throughout the rest of my career and lifetime. It’s important to remember that I wasn’t the only victim on that day. The reality is that there were people who were really scared of what happened to me. The attack has, however, provided me with an opportunity to really reevaluate my space in the family law area.

So, where to from here and what lessons have I learnt?

In terms of my work, I have returned to my former role, albeit with much less capacity. Time heals, they say. I am going to turn down the volume on it, though, and I won’t be doing as much of the old as I intend on doing the new. In this respect, I plan to build a much stronger mediation and collaborative law practice because I’m really passionate now about doing work that involves much less conflict. Doing law differently and in a much kinder way if you like.

I feel a responsibility and strong desire to advocate for change and better safety for people who attend Courts.

I have been invited to sit on a panel of like-minded individuals who want to improve our Court safety. I will be frank with my views of what needs to change. I think that it’s good to have someone who has experienced it to be the ‘sniffer dog for crap’ if you like.

Brintyn Smith

My thoughts on immediate improvements are:

Court security presence: I think it is essential to have security on all floors, at all times, in all Courts. Using the example of the New Zealand Police, they obviously get out into troublesome areas and have a visual presence. They do drive-bys – they walk the beat. The reality is that there has to be a positive impact, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And the same effect happens when Court security is walking around the Court just letting their presence be known. It’s both reassuring, and I suspect that it’s also quite dampening on tensions.

Currently, there’s no expectation that a security officer will always be available while the Family Court is sitting. It’s an exception to the rule to have security there. You must request it specifically. We should request that security is not there, not the other way around. I accept and anticipate this is a resourcing issue.

Given we need more security officers, we need more funding. The Government needs to provide it.

Better information sharing: I think we need to get better at information sharing. I have always been concerned with the silos of information that exist. I’ll give you one example. Court security is really good at removing weapons at screening. Several items seem to feature commonly: meth pipes, knuckle dusters and credit card knives. The latter, I understand, is frequently taken from people at entry. I was told that in one particular Court the knife is surrendered, and the person granted entry with no names being taken. Judges, counsel, and parties on the day are certainly not being told of the nature of any confiscation.

Aside from being concerned that someone would bring a weapon to a Court, my second biggest concern is that the information is not being routinely shared. We need to do so much better here as, in the current framework, it is conceivable that somebody could turn up at Court on five separate occasions with a credit card knife, have it confiscated, and nobody in that matter would ever know. We would, I suggest, probably find out when somebody was stabbed outside of the Court. Why are we even in this situation?

We need better information sharing. I see no reason why this shouldn’t be implemented immediately.

"The Law Society’s FLS is a source of advice and support for family lawyers. The FLS Friends Panel, the Immediate Issues Team, members of the FLS executive and the FLS regional representatives are available to help lawyers"

Security cameras, including in lifts: We now have frosting on meeting room windows which is being altered so that people and cameras (to some extent) can see through. That has been one of the really good things that has come as a result of my attack. But, we need cameras in lifts; it’s a blind spot in courthouse buildings. The lift, as I know, is a risky location. Despite what happened to me, it shocks me that it’s still a matter that has not been addressed.

Why are we even in a situation where this still needs to be advocated? This should have been addressed months ago and needs to happen.

Better support for lawyers for children (or any Court-appointed person): Lawyer for child work is undertaken as an independent contractor. We go out in the community and do the important work ultimately to assist the Family Court and to get good outcomes for children. However, the issue is that this is without any safety support being provided by the Ministry. In a climate where lawyers are increasingly concerned for their safety (rightly, in my view), I identify this as a major problem. That is because lawyers won’t get good outcomes for children if they’re operating in a climate of fear or concern for their own personal well-being. 

We need to do better here, and I would welcome the opportunity to meet with the Ministry of Justice to discuss further my concerns.

I don’t want to see my colleagues hurt in any way. I certainly don’t want to see any person go to Court and not be able to go back to work, or, in the worst-case scenario, somebody die. The stakes are really high here, and we have to do better. I am willing and able to help in any way I can to advocate for change. I am not going away.

Ministry of Justice investigation

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Brintyn, the Ministry of Justice initiated an incident cause analysis method (ICAM) investigation. This process includes gathering comments and feedback from the judiciary, Court staff and others involved, to identify what is working well and what is not. An ICAM investigation was also triggered following the serious assault that occurred on a defendant in the Napier courthouse in September 2023. Both investigations identified factors that contributed to the incidents and prompted work to incorporate the lessons learned. This work has included:

  • Reviewing and updating the training of Court security officers, Court security managers, and site managers.
  • Reviewing Court security patrols, and the level of security required, at all sites.
  • Developing a process to improve information sharing.
  • Initiating work on an memorandum of understanding with the judiciary, covering health, safety, and security arrangements.
  • Reviewing the training and education available to all staff and refreshing the site security induction programme. Lawyers can schedule a security induction by contacting local court security staff.
  • Commencing a nationwide site security assessment programme.

The Law Society and FLS also engaged with the profession to identify safety concerns in courthouses across the country. This register of issues was provided to the Ministry of Justice, which has since met regularly with the Law Society to identify what can be done within the constraints of both budget and building structures. This has included actions like the alteration of frosting on meeting room windows and ensuring the availability of duress alarms.

Family Law Section advice

FLS Chair Lauren Pegg says that the FLS was shocked and appalled by the vicious attack on Brintyn. “We are acutely aware that family lawyers receive threats of violence on a regular basis. Violence or threats of violence are never OK.”

The Law Society’s FLS is a source of advice and support for family lawyers. The FLS Friends Panel, the Immediate Issues Team, members of the FLS executive and the FLS regional representatives are available to help lawyers. Following the assault on Brintyn, the FLS advocated for free training on managing abusive and threatening behaviour which was funded and provided by the Ministry of Justice.

While there was nothing Brintyn could have done to prevent the attack, Ms Pegg issued an email bulletin to FLS members, encouraging them to review their files with fresh eyes and look for any flags that might raise safety concerns. She shared the following safety tips:

  • Speak to your local Court security officers about any concerns or assistance you require. You can let them know if anything you think may become a safety risk.
  • Duress alarms are available to borrow if you are concerned for your own safety in a particular situation.
  • Attend a safety induction at the Court in which you work that your regional representatives will organise.

Most importantly, she said that lawyers are a part of a collegial profession. “There is always someone you can discuss your concerns with.”

Please contact the Law Society if you would like to talk to a senior practitioner or want to raise local or national health and safety issues.