Court ‘roulette’ tied to sheriffs; ministry denies shortage

Defence lawyer Michael Munro was set to go to trial, representing a Victoria man accused of possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking.

“Everything was ready,” Munro said. “The Crown witnesses were there. My client was there. The judge was available. The courtroom was available. But there was no sheriff to man it.”

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In the end, the accused never appeared in front of the trial judge on Jan. 21. He was able to plead guilty to the lesser charge of possession of a controlled substance.

The man was sent to jail but received a significantly shorter sentence, said Munro.

It's a situation the defence lawyer said he “consistently” runs into.

“We have judges, courtroom and court staff available, but no sheriffs,” Munro said.

“The sheriff shortage seems to vary from time to time. For example, this week, there was a number of unfamiliar faces, sheriffs brought over from the Lower Mainland, to ease up the limited resources we have here.”

A statement from the Ministry of Justice said it has an appropriate number of sheriffs to meet the operational needs of courthouses, facilities and transport.

B.C. Sheriff Services has 480 full-time employees in the province, the statement said.

“Sick leave and other factors may create scheduling challenges from time to time,” the statement said, “but our tracking of provincewide courtroom opening delays and closures due to lack of staff show that there have been very few incidents for several months.”

But Dean Purdy, vice-president and chairman of the Corrections and Sheriff Services for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, disagrees.

He said there is a sheriff shortage and the situation in Victoria — where he said the number of sheriffs has decreased to 25 from 35 in the past five years — is a “crisis.”

“It’s like playing roulette with security, as well as the safety of the judges, court staff, the public and the sheriffs,” Purdy said.

Last week, the union asked to meet with Solicitor General Mike Morris to discuss the issue, Purdy said.

Because of the risks involved, the union is also contacting the Workers’ Compensation Board, he said.

“We’ve heard through the grapevine that management is not staffing the courtrooms of certain judges who won’t put up a fuss,” Purdy said.

In October, a provincial courtroom in Victoria was closed and a criminal trial in B.C. Supreme Court was delayed because no sheriffs were available.

“Trials often get delayed or put off and have to be rescheduled,” Purdy said.

The No. 1 reason that sheriffs are leaving the service is for other, higher paying jobs in law enforcement, he said.

Deputy sheriffs in B.C. make about $57,000 a year. Municipal police and RCMP officers get considerably more money. The sheriffs would stay if they “just made a little bit more money,” Purdy said.

Sheriffs have an active recruitment section that recruits and trains retiring or outgoing sheriffs, the ministry statement said.

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