Lawyer played dead to survive 'vicious' attack at court

A family lawyer who was brutally attacked in a courthouse lift says the more he shouted for help the more he was hit - so he pretended to be dead in the hope it would end.

The savage attack 15 months ago inside a lift at the Whangārei courthouse left family lawyer Brintyn Smith with multiple injuries, including a fractured sternum, nose and thyroid, extensive bruising to the face and a concussion.

The man responsible, Isaac Aydon has since been sentenced to two years and seven months in prison for the attack which was described by the sentencing judge as an ambush.

"It was sudden, completely unexpected and he was trapped," Judge Brooke Gibson said in sentencing Aydon on a charge of assault with intent to injure last May.

Now, Smith has given a moving account of what happened that day, and his physical and emotional recovery since the morning he thought he was going to die.

In a video released today by the New Zealand Law Society, Smith speaks haltingly and with an air of lingering shock at the events of March 9 last year.

"Admittedly, I thought he was going to kill me," he says.

The lawyer had arrived at court on what was until then, a regular morning.

"I got up, had my normal coffee, and travelled up from the Rodney District to Whangarei.

Aydon was on the second floor of the busy courthouse about 9.50 that morning, hanging around the lift area, as five courts were about to get underway for the day.

Smith, who was on the ground floor, caught the elevator to the second floor and was about to exit as the doors opened.

Without warning Aydon launched himself at Smith, punching him in the face and knocking him backwards into the lift.

The doors closed behind him, blocking Smith from exiting the lift, and Aydon punched his victim in the face and head, rendering him semi-conscious.

"The lift doors were closed and I was in there.

"The more I shouted for help the more that the blows became hard to my head and I felt it made the situation worse and made it more risky so I pretended I was dead to try and stop the blows."

He said the time he was trapped "felt like a lifetime" but in reality it happened in the time it takes to travel from the top floor to the bottom floor.

Isaac Aydon in the Whangārei District Court when he pleaded guilty to assault with intent to injure.
Isaac Aydon in the Whangārei District Court when he pleaded guilty to assault with intent to injure.
Smith remembers waking on the floor of the lift, yelling for help and being in real fear for his life.

"One of the things I remember vividly and I’ve played this back a number of times was the tapping on my shoulder to try and get me to stay awake.

"People were shouting in the background, worried, I guess by the distress it had caused."

He was taken to hospital by ambulance and discharged later that day.

"There was concern about the head injury and I never fully appreciated how complex a concussion can be. It impacts everything in your life, including parenting."

He said the first month after the attack was overwhelming, dealing with other people’s reactions and emotions as well as trying to process it himself, but he said he received tremendous support, including from around the country and from others who reached out from around the world.

"That first month was particularly blurry to me."

Smith said the mental impact had been significant and he continued to have ongoing help for that.

He stepped back from work as friends and colleagues took over his practice. Initially, he didn’t see a return to Family Court and lawyer for child work, but with help and guidance, he is slowly making his way back.

He regretted that clients, including children he had been advocating for, lost their lawyer that day with "just the click of a finger".

"I’ve never been the subject of physical abuse or attacks, ever, and to be subject to that in such a vicious and unprovoked way scary, if I can put it that way. It was terrifying."

"I’m more open to it now, with time and wise counsel and the guidance of really good people I have decided that I will return, but in a slightly different way."

Smith said the attack had been life-changing but he was determined to make something positive out of it.

He was now part of a panel assessing and planning for better courthouse security.

"I don’t want to see my colleagues end up hurt in any way.

"This is what could happen if we don’t do things better. We need more resources we need more people on the ground and more information sharing.

"At the moment the process of getting something resolved requires far too many meetings."

Smith said security needed to be stationed throughout the building at all times, especially when family court was sitting.

He said there were still no cameras in the lifts at the courthouse.

The Ministry of Justice has conducted an investigation and the family law section of the NZ Law Society advocated for free training on managing abusive and threatening behaviour.

Lawyers are encouraged to attend safety induction at the courts where they work and speak to security if they have concerns.

Work is ongoing to improve safety at courthouses around the country.

 - Tracy Neal, Open Justice reporter