EXCLUSIVE: 'I felt I was fighting for my life': Stratford duty solicitor describes being pinned down by court security

A duty solicitor has described the moment ‘four or five’ court security staff pinned him down with their knees, apparently ignoring his plea that he could not breathe.

Dele Johnson was working as duty solicitor in the Youth Court at Stratford Magistrates’ on Wednesday 1 May when the incident occurred. He said he thought ‘for about 30 seconds that I was in danger’.

Johnson had arrived early for his hearing, passed through security and was given a pat-down. Later, he told the Gazette, he stepped out of the court building and stood outside the glass-fronted entrance for a cigarette. When he returned, a security officer said he would need to go through another check. He agreed to a second pat-down but when asked to remove his shoes, he refused. Security told him he could not re-enter the building. He asked to make a formal complaint. Eventually, security forcibly removed him.

He said: ‘The first time I got thrown out of court, I was grabbed by four duty officers. I hit my hand on the barrier, and they left me outside while my bag was in the advocates’ room.

‘I got a phone call saying a youth client was at court so I came back to do my duty. I explained the situation and she told the chair. I get let in the side door, go upstairs, meet up with the client, take instructions, gave advice.

‘At lunchtime I did not leave the court, I did not want to antagonise [security] so I stayed in.’

While in court, Johnson said a member of security entered the courtroom. He was aware this was likely in connection with him. Johnson left the courtroom later to discuss matters with other representatives. On his return, his entrance was stopped by security staff.

Johnson said: ‘One of the security officers blocked me while I try to go to court number 10.’

Johnson, who used the second door to attempt entry, added: ‘He pushed me and I said “what are you doing?”. I tried to go through the other door, and he pushed me and said “you’re not going in”. Then somebody grabbed me by the neck, another person grabbed my arm.’

At this point, Johnson said, ‘four or five’ guards grabbed him. He said: ‘I was saying “you need to let me go” but it got worse. I said “if you do not let go of me, I will have to defend myself”. I started swinging. I felt I was fighting for my life against five grown men to stop them holding me and grabbing me.

‘Eventually they get me on the ground, and it hurt a little bit. There were quite a few grown men on my back. Their knees were on my arms, legs, and my back.

‘I have asthma, my chest was being pushed to the floor so now I am struggling to breathe.

‘I never thought I would be the one saying: “I cannot breathe”.

‘I was just trying to do my job. It was my duty to be there.’

Johnson told the Gazette he was unsure of when the security guards stopped holding him to the ground but remembered police already at the court ‘stopped the whole thing’.

‘There was court staff, the youth offending team, legal advisers saying, “stop he cannot breathe, he cannot move, get him up”. I do not understand how it came to an end, but police were involved at some stage,’ he said.

Johnson, admitted in 2015, compared the difference between his experience at Stratford to courts just ‘two stops away’ in Bow and Thames.

He said: ‘If you go down to Bow mags, Thames mag, I have never been treated this way. How can that be that two stops down the way, you’re getting dragged down and then elsewhere it’s “hello Mr Johnson, how are you?”’

Stratford Magistrates Court

Johnson, who filed a police complaint yesterday following advice, spoke of his reluctance to return to Stratford. He said calls of support, and his firm, particularly his manager’s support, had been gratefully appreciated.

He added: ‘I did not shed a single tear until [that] night. I was at the hospital, spoke to a friend of mine and when telling her what had happened, [about security] lying on my back, and I said I cannot breathe I started cracking up. The only thing I could think of is the George Floyd video and him saying I cannot breathe, with everyone on their camera phones and not assisting.

‘Every time I do think about it, I start crying.

‘My arms neck and back are in serious pain. I went to A&E and they confirmed I had nothing but scratches. That is good and that is the physical.

‘I do not know how this will affect my head going forward. [The day of the incident] I thought I was fine. I woke up [the following day] and cried every time I thought about the guys’ knees on my back.’

Asked if he felt safe to return to work, Johnson said: ‘Not in that court. Not at all. I have told [security] they need to calm down, I told them something like this would happen. There is no need for them to behave in this way.

The Metropolitan Police said: ‘On Thursday, 2 May, police received a report of an altercation outside Stratford Magistrates’ Court the previous day. Enquiries are ongoing; no arrests have been made.’

A HMCTS spokesperson said: ‘These are serious complaints and we are urgently investigating them as a matter of priority. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. Our security measures are designed to protect the safety of all court users within our premises and remain under constant review. They are put in place in consultation with judiciary and the police.’

A Law Society spokesperson said it had been made aware of ‘a number of serious incidents’ at Stratford which indicated a ‘pattern of alleged rogue behaviour’.

‘We are making urgent enquiries of HMCTS to establish the facts and to secure assurances as to the safety of our members.’

The Gazette has approached the company believed to be responsible for providing security at Stratford for comment.

Following the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association’s open letter to HMCTS addressing its shock over the incident and a call to suspend the security officers allegedly involved, social media users took to X, formerly Twitter, to express their outrage, shock and solidarity with Johnson.

The incident this week is the latest in a series of complaints over security measures at Stratford. The LCCSA made an official complaint to HMCTS about the ‘invasive’ searches last month.


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