Sheriffs flown in to Victoria to cover shortfall, union says

Sheriffs are being flown to Victoria to cover staffing shortages at the courthouse that led to the dismissal of criminal charges against two accused drug dealers last month, the B.C. Government and Services Employees’ Union says.

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.

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“They’re essentially doing triage on sheriff staffing to try and stop the bleeding and plug holes where they can,” Purdy said. “We’ve been raising the alarm bells on this for the past few years and knew that this was going to come to a head.”

Attorney General Suzanne Anton said there’s nothing unusual about the practice, which is used to meet shifting demands.

“Sheriffs are a provincial resource and they are moved around the province,” she said Wednesday. “It’s voluntary, but they are moved if a courthouse is particularly busy.”

NDP justice critic Mike Farnworth called Anton’s explanation “nonsense.”

“Flying people around to different parts of the province is very expensive,” he said. “The proper approach would be to make sure all courtrooms are properly staffed at all times.”

During one week in February, judges tossed out two cases involving alleged drug dealers because of a shortage of sheriffs at the Victoria courthouse. On Feb. 22, only one provincial court with a judge was running in Victoria. A lack of sheriffs shut down one trial court, family case conferences and settlement conferences.

On March 9, the sheriff shortage forced family lawyer Christine Churcher and her clients to wait several hours to have a child protection matter heard.

“We’re lucky to some degree because child protection matters generally take precedence over almost any other matters,” Churcher said. “But increasingly, despite that, if there are sheriffs shortages, we’re booted or get less time in court than allotted.”

Churcher said her clients are among the most marginalized with drug addiction and mental-health issues.

“It’s very difficult to explain, or for many of them to keep hope, if they’re losing their court date when they finally get their chance to be in front of a judge.”

Churcher added these are often parents who have worked hard to meet requirements to regain custody of their children

People wait five to six months to set a trial date on child protection matters. Adjournments are usually one to two months.

“It’s incredibly prejudicial and of course, there’s fallback for the children. Their parents aren’t getting a shot at the court system and they’re not getting listened to,” Churcher said.

The union that represents sheriffs says the shortages have become more acute because of problems retaining sheriffs.

“They’re not getting to the crux of the issue and that’s the pay,” said Purdy, noting that sheriffs could make an additional $30,000 or more by becoming a police officer.

“We’re not saying they need to be paid the same as municipal police, RCMP and transit police. We’re saying they need to close the gap to try and stop the exodus from happening. It’s a retention problem.”

Anton disputed that.

“I’ve looked at the numbers over the past 10 or so years and there is nothing unusual in the retention rate right now,” she said.

She added that her ministry will use a $2.67-million budget increase to add 56 new sheriffs this year from two classes at the Justice Institute of B.C. The court services branch will decide where the new sheriffs work.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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