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B.C. sheriff shortage leads to court delays and calls for action from trial lawyers

Click to play video: 'Sheriff shortage impacting B.C. justice system'
Sheriff shortage impacting B.C. justice system
There is a renewed call for urgent action to address an ongoing sheriff shortage that's impacting the B.C. justice system. Kristen Robinson now with more on what's behind the crisis - and what the government says it is doing about it – Jun 14, 2024

Concerns are being raised about the lack of sheriffs available at Vancouver courthouses, leading to trial delays.

Five courtrooms were closed at the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse on Thursday. Three additional courtrooms were closed in Port Coquitlam.

Reports indicate that the closure of courtrooms on two floors of 222 Main Street, which is the courtroom where most of the province’s criminal matters are heard, resulted in the halting of a sexual assault sentencing, as well as an extortion case.

Click to play video: 'Sheriff shortages lead to courtroom closures'
Sheriff shortages lead to courtroom closures

Michael Elliott, president of the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia, said their organization is calling for urgent action from the B.C. government, specifically Attorney General Niki Sharma, to address the critical shortage of sheriffs.

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“I think it’s important to understand the role of a sheriff in our justice system,” Elliott said. “Deputy sheriffs are a law enforcement agency, separate and distinct from any of the other law enforcement agencies, such as police and corrections officers.”

B.C. currently has about 550 deputy sheriffs, and their duties include protecting judges and court officials, transporting accused persons in custody, prison escorts executing certain kinds of arrest warrants, and otherwise maintaining the safety of B.C.’s provincial courts.

Elliott said that sheriffs operate under Sharma’s authority and the government’s inaction on this issue is disrupting the administration of justice in B.C.

Click to play video: 'Sherriffs save judge after B.C. ambulance delays create a tense situation at B.C. Supreme Court'
Sherriffs save judge after B.C. ambulance delays create a tense situation at B.C. Supreme Court

“What we’re seeing in courts throughout B.C. and certainly here in the Lower Mainland is that on a daily basis, accused are losing their right to a trial within a reasonable time, Garen Arnet-Zargarian, a criminal defence lawyer, told Global News.

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“Every day, the courts are faced with a shortage of sheriffs. And these are circumstances where they have a courtroom, they have a judge, the parties are ready to go, but there’s no sheriff. And so we’re seeing a distinct lack of access to justice in the criminal courts for an accused person, but in courts throughout B.C. for other matters as well.”

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Arnet-Zargarian said that in any case that suffers a delay, it could mean the case does not get resolved that day and impacts the accused, the complainants and anyone else involved.

“It might be a trial, and that person could be held in custody where their rights and liberties are significantly restricted,” he added. “So it’s, a very significant impact on the community here in B.C.”

Click to play video: 'Sherriffs save judge after B.C. ambulance delays create a tense situation at B.C. Supreme Court'
Sherriffs save judge after B.C. ambulance delays create a tense situation at B.C. Supreme Court

Elliott said the issue comes down to the government’s allocation of resources.

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“We have a provincial government that has grown the public sector by 35 per cent since they took office,” he said. “They’ve created 12,000 new government employees over the last six years. For example, they’ve ballooned the size of ICBC and the number of adjusters working there. Yet they seemingly have ignored the sheriff shortage, which is now causing, dangerous, issues to the administration of justice in this province.”
When asked if the administration of justice was being compromised by the sheriff shortage, B.C.’s Attorney General did not provide a direct answer but said sheriffs are vital to keeping courtrooms running.

“Trials need to happen on time, they need to happen without disruption of not having a sheriff,” Niki Sharma told Global News in an interview Friday. “It’s something that we need to make sure we keep working at it until it’s solved.”

The Attorney General said her government is actively engaged in recruitment and 60 new sheriffs will be graduating in the next two months.

“Getting more sheriffs in the door is my priority because I don’t want that to be a reason for a trial delay,” Sharma said.

The BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents provincial sheriffs, said government needs to address the crisis by looking at the broader labour market and putting retention measures in place to competitively keep sheriffs’ service members from leaving.

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“The crisis we’re seeing is not a recruitment crisis, it’s a retention crisis,” BCGEU president Paul Finch told Global News Friday. “So the problem is not in hiring new sheriffs, the problem is being able to retain them long enough to keep our courtrooms open and functioning.”

Sharma said government is working on a better compensation package to keep sheriffs in the job.

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