Lack of sheriffs delay Victoria court cases

Sheriff staffing at critical levels, says union

An impaired driving trial, a handful of family cases and other court business were adjourned in Victoria in April because of a shortage of sheriffs.

This week, two cases were delayed by 30 minutes because not enough sheriffs were available for the courtroom.

While staffing shortages for sheriffs have abated in Victoria, they haven’t disappeared and are still affecting the justice system in the city.

“They’ve been scrambling, using managers, using supervisors to make do,” said Dean Purdy, chair of the Corrections and Sheriffs Services compartment of the B.C. Government Employees’ Union, of the staffing situation in Victoria.

While the worst of the delays are over, Purdy said, “I’ve heard it’s only a matter of time before it starts again.”

Adding to the delayed justice, the provincial government cut the hours of 52 auxiliary and part-time sheriffs this month, equivalent to eliminating 34 full-time positions. That’s on top of the loss of nearly 100 sheriffs – almost 20 per cent of the workforce – by attrition during a four-year hiring freeze.

Then, on Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark said the problem had to be addressed.

Clark said she would be speaking with Attorney General Barry Penner about the issue.

Penner, for his part, said his ministry’s budget is tapped out, but he would look at reallocating funds to pay more sheriffs.

February’s provincial budget approved cuts totaling $14.5 million for court services, prosecution services and the judiciary, despite a 2010 report from provincial court judges warning more than 2,000 criminal cases are at risk of being quashed due to excessive delays.

With trials scheduled months in advance, delayed court cases can be pushed back by several months to a year. In such instances, the cases are at risk of being thrown out, as the wait could be found to violate the accused’s right to be tried in a reasonable time.

“The staffing levels are already critical and (the government) is forcing a showdown between the judiciary and government staffing,” Purdy said. “The security of court staff, the judges and the public are at risk.”

ecardone@vicnews.com