Shortage of court clerks, sheriffs affecting B.C. trials

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WATCH: A shortage of court clerks, baliffs, and sheriffs is causing major delays in the legal system, and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kylie Stanton explains – Feb 2, 2016

Courthouse clerks help keep B.C’s justice system functioning, responsible for everything from managing exhibits to swearing in witnesses.

They’re also in very short supply.

“It’s a problem which is systemic. It affects different parts of the province and it’s been going on for years,” criminal defence lawyer Michael Mulligan said.

On Monday, Justice Robert Johnston had enough, adjourning a trial that had been going on for more than 40 days because a clerk wasn’t available.

“The province of British Columbia has failed in its constitutional obligation to properly fund the administration of justice,” said Johnston, according to the Victoria Times-Colonist.

“It’s rather like having a house without a key. You can’t get in and you’ve got an expensive house sitting there. It’s a complete waste of time,” NDP justice critic Leonard Krog said.

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It’s also a waste of money.

Taxpayers are footing the bill for crown counsel while private litigants are paying lawyers anywhere between $500 and $1,000 an hour.

“The costs associated with this kind of disruption are horrendous. Thousands and thousands of dollars were wasted,” Krog said.

A lack of clerks isn’t the only thing causing problems. The number of deputy sheriffs is also declining.

“I can tell you that since November they’ve lost 30 deputy sheriffs in the province. The recruitment and retention numbers are staggering,” BCGEU Corrections and Sheriff Services chair Dean Purdy said.

A deputy sheriff’s annual salary starts at around $57,000. By comparison, a Victoria Police probationary constable makes $64,500, a number that grows over years of service.

“Government needs to do something to bring up their wages so that they can compete,” Purdy said.

The Ministry of Justice was not available to comment on camera, but said in a statement:

“We regret any time we’re unable to meet the needs of the court due to unforeseen circumstances. Occasionally, scheduling plans must be changed due to a range of factors, from last minute settlements to staff illness. Court Services staff work hard to schedule sheriffs and court clerks to support the Judiciary and are doing everything they can to ensure access to justice is served.”

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Krog is skeptical.

“It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “It’s never a surprise. It’s simply a lack of planning, it’s a lack of funding, it’s a lack of foresight, it’s a lack of good management. Unfortunately, that has become fairly typical under the Liberals when it comes to managing the justice system.”

A report released by the Provincial Court of B.C. shows that wait times for criminal, family and small claims trials are trending downward across the board.

But now, Justice Robert Johnston’s trial is a day behind. It resumed Tuesday with a clerk on hand.

– With files from Kylie Stanton