Clerks shipped to Victoria to cover gap at courthouse

Court clerks from as far away as Fort St. John are being flown to Victoria to ease a temporary shortage of clerks at the Victoria courthouse.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Justice confirmed three clerks from other parts of the province had been sent to Victoria to address the shortage, created by illness, retirements and people moving to other positions within the public service.

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The clerks have their choice of four downtown hotels, including the Empress, the Parkside, the Marriott, and Chateau Victoria.

The government has not said how much transportation and hotel stays for court clerks have cost this year, but stated the additional cost “is accounted for in existing budgets.”

A court clerk is a sworn officer of the court whose duties include managing exhibits, recording proceedings and swearing in witnesses. They receive an annual salary of $40,500 to $46,000.

Two new court clerks will be hired at the Victoria courthouse this month and seven are expected to be hired in April, said the ministry. However, it did not provide what staffing levels are in the Victoria registry, compared to two and five years ago.

“Occasionally we redeploy court staff to busier locations as needed. … Court clerks from other locations, mainly from Vancouver Island, have been assisting during the transition until the new staff are in place,” the ministry said.

An applicant inventory to streamline recruitment of court clerks has been created. Successful applicants will be placed into an inventory and notified of opportunities as they arise.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the issue with clerks is less pressing than a shortage of sheriffs.

“The issue around the number of court clerks is not such a challenging issue as sheriffs, because a sheriff is a sheriff whereas … there’s a lot of people trained in the registry who can move in and out of courtrooms [as clerks] as needed.”

Last month, two cases against accused drug dealers were tossed out of court because of a shortage of sheriffs at the Victoria courthouse. That shortage also shut down one trial court, family case conferences and settlement conferences.

The B.C. Government and Services Employees’ Union has said sheriffs are being flown to Victoria to cover staffing shortages.

Union vice-president Dean Purdy said the government is covering flights, meals, overtime and hotel expenses for sheriffs and offering them the option of remaining in Victoria on weekends.

Anton said the government is always hiring.

“There is always a certain attrition rate in government. People come and go. … There’s nothing unusual about the circumstances with regard to clerks. With sheriffs, we do need to put more people into the sheriff services, which is why we have 56 coming this year.”

BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said the clerk shortage highlights a broader problem with recruiting and retaining government employees. The same issues affect sheriffs and front-line child protection workers.

“People who are highly specialized in training — and court clerks are — don’t necessarily stay,” she said. “They go for better-paying positions in the private sector or in other parts of government.”

Smith said the union wants a discussion with government on how to keep valued employees, particularly in Victoria and the Lower Mainland, where people are struggling to maintain a family and home given the high cost of living.

“Constantly training new staff is a very expensive proposition and, certainly, flying staff in from various regions around the province also incurs costs.”

ldickson@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

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