Top judge blasts province over lack of court clerks

The senior judge of the Supreme Court of B.C. in Victoria fired a broadside at the provincial government on Monday, after shutting down a complex trial for want of a clerk.

The courtroom was filled with seven lawyers, their support workers and a witness when Justice Robert Johnston adjourned the case. They were all part of a boundary dispute over First Nations Treaty 8, involving a representative of the province, the federal government and five First Nations.

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“The province of British Columbia has failed in its constitutional obligation to properly fund the administration of justice,” said Johnston before walking out.

The trial, already past its 40th day, is scheduled to resume today, assuming a clerk is found.

Nonetheless, three of the other cases that went ahead instead on Monday were delayed at least 30 minutes each, including a family-dispute hearing scheduled for 90 minutes.

A provincial courtroom was also shut down on Monday for lack of a clerk.

A court clerk is a sworn officer of the court whose duties include managing exhibits, recording proceedings and swearing in witnesses.

Court clerks are not the only support staff in short supply in the Victoria courthouse.

A shortage of sheriffs, the uniformed men and women who transport people to and from jail and keep order in courtrooms, has also caused the shutdown of Victoria courtrooms recently. Last week, the Corrections and Sheriff Services section of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union asked to meet with Solicitor General Mike Morris to discuss the sheriff shortage, which it calls a crisis.

In an email statement, the provincial Ministry of Justice expressed regret for any trial delays because of staff shortages, but said wait times for criminal, family and small-claims courts are on the decline.

“Court Services staff work hard to schedule sheriffs and court clerks to support the judiciary and are doing everything they can to ensure justice is served,” said the email.

But Leonard Krog, NDP justice critic, was appalled to hear about Monday’s forced adjournment.

Krog said delaying such a case, with its complexities and high-priced lawyers, for the sake of a clerk is like the old story of losing a kingdom for want of a nail.

“For the sake of a few hundred dollars to have a clerk in place, British Columbians involved in this case, with all its senior lawyers, are out tens of thousands of dollars,” said Krog, a lawyer himself.

“It’s unnecessary and reflects poor management.”

He noted that senior lawyers involved in complex treaty cases can command fees of $500 to $900 an hour.

Under the collective agreement between the province and union, a court clerk makes $40,000 to $46,000 a year, depending on years of service. Deputy sheriffs make about $57,000 a year.

Krog said a functioning justice system is a fundamental responsibility of good government, extending back centuries.

“Before public education, before public health care, the justice system was expected to be there, available and functioning,” he said. “It’s a foundational element of government.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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