Why Spain’s courts are becoming a stage for violence

In addition to the lack of security, many old courthouses make plaintiffs and defendants wait in the same area, which can lead to severe altercations

Judge Elisa Guasp.
Judge Elisa Guasp.MÒNICA TORRES

Courts should be especially safe government buildings, but that is not always the case. Elisa Guasp, a magistrate in Alzira, a town in Spain’s eastern Valencia region, complains that fights regularly break out just meters from the door to her office and, at times, escalate into violence. According to several sources, this is not an isolated case, but a problem that is regularly seen due to the lack of security personnel, particularly in old courthouses where defendants and plaintiffs are forced to share the same waiting area.

I saw around 50 people fighting in front of the family and gender violence courtroom

Judge Elisa Guasp

On October 16, Guasp was in a hearing when she heard shouts coming from a narrow corridor where the alleged victims and aggressors, as well as their respective families, were waiting for the court session to start.

“I came out of the courtroom and went to find the Civil Guard but I couldn’t find him,” she says. “When I reached the scene, I saw around 50 people fighting in front of the family and gender violence courtroom. A guard was trying unsuccessfully to separate them and, dressed in my robes, I started to give orders to get everyone to evacuate the floor. But while they were leaving, they got hold of a man and threw him down the stairs. It’s hard to see someone crying because they have been thrown down the stairs of a judicial headquarters.”

Just months earlier, Guasp saw a man being beaten up and his head slammed against a building pillar. His injuries were so severe he had to be taken away by an ambulance.

A spokesman for Valencia’s regional government says the problem in Alzira is due to the small size of the courthouse, which makes it very difficult to keep the defendants and the plaintiffs apart. He adds that a new building is in the pipeline.

But Alzira is by no means an exception. The courts in Lugo in the northwestern region of Galicia have the same problem, according to one member of staff who prefers to remain anonymous. “We all have the feeling we’ve been sold out,” the source says. “We can be assaulted at any time. And that’s the least of it. There are one or two policemen on the front door of a building with four floors and 16 courtrooms. And sometimes all hell breaks loose in front of these courtrooms. People fighting, pulling each other’s hair, we’ve had people faint […] If they [the officers] hear a row going on, they don’t come up because then they would have to leave the main door unmanned. They only come if they are called. And it feels like an eternity from the time you call them to the time they arrive”

The regional government of Galicia also admits there’s a problem but a spokesman blames the Interior Ministry for not “offering the police officers needed.”

It’s hard to see someone crying because they have been thrown down the stairs of a judicial headquarters Judge Elisa Guasp

Across most of Spain, courts are guarded by police and reserve Civil Guard officers. Their terms of employment are set out in an agreement signed by the regional governments and the Interior Ministry. But there are not enough of them, so the regions employ private security guards and even then,  security is still insufficient, according to Xosé Barreiro, the head of the justice department of the Galician Inter-Union Confederation (CIG).

“The biggest and most modern courts usually have a number of security controls and police posts, but in others there is far less security,” says José María Páez, a senior judge in the southern city of Málaga.

Meanwhile, Mercé Cano, a senior judge in Barcelona, explains, “The new courthouses are being built with different points of entry for the public, professionals, victims, and those who are in the hands of the security forces. This is not the case in the old courthouses. In Catalonia, there is the occasional fight and violent incident. When that happens, the normal running of the courtrooms is thrown off course because it highlights the fact that the security we have inside the buildings is weak.”

Divorce and assault trials

Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) does not keep a record of the violent altercations. But sources state that most of the trouble relates to gender violence and assault cases, as well as divorces proceedings where children are involved.

Concha Rodríguez, president of the Independent Judicial Forum and a children’s court judge in Madrid, believes that the problem is being exacerbated by the increasing use of private security. “However well trained they are, they do not carry the same weight as a member of the police or the Civil Guard,” she says.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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