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Sheriff shortage delays B.C. murder, murder conspiracy cases

A B.C. Supreme Court justice and about a dozen lawyers couldn't start proceedings with murder and murder conspiracy cases on time May 27.
New deputies announced in February will fill positions in Oliver, Kamloops, Prince George, Victoria and the Lower Mainland.

Murder and a murder conspiracy cases were delayed in B.C. Supreme Court May 27 due to a shortage of sheriffs that continues in B.C. despite the attorney general’s assurances it is being dealt with.

Justice Kathleen Ker came into court to hear the two cases but had to leave as there was no sheriff.

Sheriffs are required in courtrooms to provide security for proceedings. They also move prisoners around courthouses and transport them to court. 

About a dozen lawyers, including four publicly paid Crown prosecutors, were left milling around outside the courtroom at the Vancouver Law Courts on Monday.

A statement from the Ministry of Attorney General said Vancouver Law Courts's sheriffs had to prioritize staffing May 27 because there were two jury trials running at the courthouse.

“The ministry is working hard to ensure our courts are appropriately staffed and we will continue to make improvements,” the statement said. “Sheriffs are a critical part of our justice system and are integral in ensuring people have safe access to court services.”

One case involved an appearance by Pascal Jean Claude Bouthillete. He and Sandy Jack Parisian were accused in the death of 78-year-old Usha Singh.

Singh, who lived alone, was found badly beaten in her house on Jan. 31, 2021. Vancouver police said two men gained entry to Singh’s Little Mountain home around 6 a.m. by posing as police officers. 

Singh succumbed to her injuries in hospital two days later. Parisian and Bouthillete were arrested on Feb. 3, 2021.

The conspiracy to commit murder case involves multiple accused. Two men are facing the court together while a third is facing the charges separately. Due to a series of publication bans in the case and the separate trials, Glacier Media has chosen not to publish details at this time.

Court delays in B.C.’s justice system due to sheriff shortages have become more common in recent years. Thirty-one courtrooms were closed in Abbotsford, North Vancouver, Port Coquitlam and Surrey between Aug. 14 and Sept. 13, 2023. Earlier in 2023, sources told Glacier Media courtroom closures included those in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, Victoria, Chilliwack and Kamloops.

Concerns have already been expressed before judges and by judges that delays could begin to hamper people's right to a trial within a reasonable time period.

This comes before the courts as lawyers begin mentioning the application of the so-called Jordan principles whereby that right is upheld. The Jordan principles stem from a case that wound up in the Supreme Court of Canada. Stays of proceedings are possible if a case hits a ceiling of 18 months for those tried in the provincial court and 30 months for cases in superior courts.

On the May 27 Vancouver Provincial Court list alone, there were 32 cases listed in excess of 300 days (or nearly 10 months).

“Delay attributable to or waived by the defence does not count towards the presumptive ceiling,” the high court said.

Attorney General Nikki Sharma has acknowledged the problems created by the shortage and stressed the provincial government is working on recruiting new sheriffs. In February, Sharma announced the addition of 13 new deputies

"Everyone who uses the court system expects it to run safely and smoothly," Sharma said in a statement at the time. "Sheriffs provide critical protective and enforcement services for the judiciary, Crown, defence, court staff and the public. That's why it's so encouraging that more people than ever are applying to join the BC Sheriff Service." 

Getting those recruits to courtrooms, however, does take time as they need to undergo training at the Justice Institute of BC.

Still, the ministry said, ongoing recruitment and retention challenges are impacting the service but ongoing work is having a positive impact.

As a result of targeted marketing campaigns, an August 2023 sheriff job posting brought in 624 applicants.

The ministry said the spring 2024 class has 59 recruits attending training (35 started on March 11, and 24 started on April 15). The March class will be graduating on June 18, 2024, and joining the staffing complement on July 15. The April class will be graduating on July 11, 2024, and joining the staffing complement Aug. 6.

“The spring 2024 class has been the largest class in recent memory,” the ministry said.

"In addition, the December 2023 job posting that closed on Jan. 19, 2024 brought in 829 applicants," the ministry said. “These applicants are currently undergoing the screening and assessment stages of the application process, with successful candidates starting training in July 2024."

“The most recent posting closed on April 26, 2024 with 533 applicants, and will have a class of 24 recruits starting (sheriff recruitment training) in November 2024," the statement noted.