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B.C. sheriff shortage recommendations unaddressed, lawyers say

"An immediate, full explanation from the attorney general is required to restore public confidence in our judicial system."
The Trial Lawyers Association of BC wants answers about courtroom closures from Attorney General Niki Sharma (left), seen here with Premier David Eby.

The Trial Lawyers Association of BC (TLABC) wants Attorney General Niki Sharma to explain why a majority of the recommendations from a 2023 report to the chief sheriff on the shortage crisis are still not implemented one year later.

“Some of the report’s recommendations are basic things. There’s just no excuse for not fixing already, such as a lack of safety equipment, bad radios, courthouses without any security gates to check for weapons and low pay leading to other law enforcement agencies routinely hiring newly recruited sheriffs out of the (BC Sheriff Service or BCSS),” TLABC president Michael Elliott said June 19.

Elliott called the current situation unacceptable.

“An immediate, full explanation from the attorney general is required to restore public confidence in our judicial system and to restore public confidence in the attorney general’s ability to manage it competently,” he said.

The report for the chief sheriff covered service recruitment and retention challenges underlying the province’s ongoing sheriff shortage crisis. It also addressed sheriffs dealing with high-pressure and challenging situations involving individuals in crisis that can contribute to chronic stress and fatigue.

Elliott said on May 27, 2024, two high-profile cases were delayed due to the unavailability of sheriffs, leaving numerous lawyers and prosecutors idle and compromising the judicial process.

“This is not an isolated incident; courtroom closures due to sheriff shortages have become increasingly common across the province, including in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam and Surrey,” Elliott said.

Legal profession regulation

Elliott further questioned why the NDP government cannot manage to have sufficient sheriffs to keep courts in operation while at the same time it “recently passed legislation aimed at giving itself even more control of the legal profession under the guise of improving access to justice.”

There, Elliott refers to Bill 21, the Legal Professions Act, aimed at reforming the Law Society of BC into a single regulator not just for lawyers, but for notaries and paralegals.

The stated goal, according to the provincial government, is to broaden access to legal services and the justice system.

The Law Society of BC has announced it will initiate a constitutional challenge to a new law aimed at reforming the regulator.

Elliott called that situation “ironic and troubling.”

"The government's inability to manage the BC Sheriff Service is in danger of causing the public to lose faith in the administration of justice in B.C.," Elliott said. “If the courthouses are constantly closed down due to sheriff shortages, no amount of government overreach or control is going to improve access to justice.”

Recent closures

Vancouver Provincial Courthouse went into crisis mode June 13 as a sheriff shortage led to closures of five courtrooms.

Sources told Glacier Media the courthouse lost five deputies to the Vancouver Law Courts which houses B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal so those courts could operate. Meanwhile, Glacier Media learned of three courtroom closures in Port Coquitlam.

Meanwhile, criminal defence lawyer Jayde Niefer said criminal, civil and family law cases were affected by June 17 Surrey courtroom closures. The BC Civil Liberties Association has also expressed concerns.

The association said the 2023 report highlighted a number of concerning findings, including:

•  The BCSS lost nearly 12 per cent of its sheriffs in one year, and the rate of attrition is rising: “...since fiscal year 2020-21, the attrition rate has sharply increased and stands at 11.7 percent as of the fiscal year-end for 2022-23”;

•  It was “estimated that 40-50 per cent of sheriffs have a second job” to overcome low pay in the BCSS;

• “Unsuitable radios and communications infrastructure... [Deputy sheriffs] feel like their safety is not valued;”

• “sheriffs expressed frustration regarding delays and difficulties in obtaining appropriate uniforms;”

• “concerns about insufficient safety equipment or equipment of questionable quality;” and,

• “Lack of security gates... without security gates, the job of sheriffs can be more difficult, and there is a greater risk that dangerous items may enter the courthouse.”

Glacier Media has reached out to the Ministry of the Attorney General for comment.

In a June 13 statement to Glacier, the ministry said, “There are 34 sheriffs graduating next week with another 20 graduating in early July, which will help alleviate some of the challenges courts are experiencing."

The ministry said the attorney general is in regular contact with the courts about sheriff resourcing issues.

With files from Graeme Wood