A major cut in the number of sheriffs who guard B.C.’s courts will leave the public, witnesses, judges and staff at greater risk of violence, according to their union.
The provincial government plans to reduce the hours of 52 auxiliary and part-time sheriffs, equivalent to eliminating 34 full-time positions.
“The safety of the judges, the safety of the court staff, the safety of the sheriffs and the public is compromised and at risk,” said Dean Purdy, spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union.
“More and more gang activity and violent crimes are being dealt with in the courts,” he said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we see major incident occur in one of our court houses.”
The planned cut comes on top of past reductions in the ranks of sheriffs – as well as judges and other court staff – that have been blamed for lengthening waits for cases to get to trial and some of those cases being thrown out due to unacceptable delays.
Almost 100 sheriffs – nearly 20 per cent of the workforce – have been lost to attrition during a four-year hiring freeze, mainly as sheriffs move on to higher-paying law enforcement jobs.
Judges have increasingly refused to run their courts in some parts of B.C. when there’s no deputy sheriff available to provide security.
Purdy said the downtown Vancouver trial of the Okanagan-based Greeks organized crime group is proceeding at the high-security court room built for the Air India trial, but full safety procedures are not in effect.
“There’s no search gates set up,” he said. “I’m almost certain that’s due to a lack of staffing.”
Purdy predicts the new cuts will cause more court date cancellations and fuel further delays in the courts.
Court rooms have sometimes been closed in Kelowna, Kamloops, Victoria, Nanaimo and parts of the Lower Mainland in recent months due to the lack of sheriffs.
Judges have increasingly spoken out about the shortage, saying there’s potential for volatile or dangerous situations to erupt in court without security.
Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. president Azool Jaffer-Jeraj said the shortage of sheriffs and judges causes a ripple effect through the system.
“Recent courtroom closures were caused by a shortage of sheriffs and this will only get worse as staffing cuts cause harm throughout the province,” he said.
“Courtrooms should not be empty when there is a backlog of cases to be processed,” Jaffer-Jeraj said. “It erodes justice.”
February’s provincial budget approved cuts totaling $14.5 million for court services, prosecution services and the judiciary, despite a published warning from the provincial court that more than 2,000 criminal cases are at risk of being quashed due to excessive delays.
“Our number one priority remains the safety and security of our courtrooms and our court facilities, but we are also living within a budget,” Attorney-General Barry Penner said in the legislature June 1, under questioning from the NDP.