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B.C. court sheriff shortage at 'crisis' level, says trial lawyers association

A court sheriff searches a woman's belongings upon entering B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster. (The Canadian Press/Richard Lam) A court sheriff searches a woman's belongings upon entering B.C. Supreme Court in New Westminster. (The Canadian Press/Richard Lam)
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A society representing legal professionals in B.C. says a “critical” shortage of court sheriffs is leading to delays in the justice system, and is calling on the province to fix it.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. says the shortage of sheriffs, who are responsible for transporting the accused to court and providing courtroom security, has an especially high impact on criminal cases.

The association points to May 27, when two cases were delayed due to inadequate sheriff staffing, which left defence counsel and prosecutors waiting and “compromised the judicial process.”

“The current shortage of sheriffs is a severe issue that directly impacts the administration of justice,” said association president Michael Elliott in a news release issued Friday. “The Attorney General's office, responsible for ensuring adequate staffing of sheriffs, must take immediate steps to resolve this crisis."

In an emailed statement Monday, the Ministry of the Attorney General acknowledged recruitment and retention challenges in the sector, but said “the actions we’ve taken are having a positive impact.”

The ministry said as a result of its marketing campaigns, the most recent intake for the sheriff training program received 533 applicants, and the one that closed in January got 829.

The Spring 2024 class that is about to graduate and enter the courts has 59 trainees, “the largest class in recent memory,” a ministry spokesperson said.

In the meantime, Elliott said courtroom closures due to sheriff unavailability are becoming “increasingly common” across B.C., including in Vancouver, Abbotsford and Surrey.

“The delay in these cases frustrates the public’s interest in timely trials,” he said. “The inability to proceed with court cases not only undermines the constitutional rights of the accused but also denies victims and their families the justice they deserve.”

The association says it’s urging the government to prioritize recruiting and training sheriffs so courts can function effectively, and is calling for a review of funding for legal aid services.

Elliott says the province is “underfunding” legal aid by $100 million per year, which limits access to justice for vulnerable populations.

For its part, the ministry said its Legal Aid B.C. 2024 budget is $150 million, about $70 million more than in 2016/2017.

“"The government's approach to managing the justice system is fundamentally flawed," he continued.

"The government underfunding legal aid and failing to adequately staff court security are both critical issues that need immediate attention.”

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