The clerk is probably one of the least-noticed people in a courtroom, but without that officer of the court, the wheels of justice grind to a halt. That a trial should be halted for lack of a clerk is unthinkable, yet that’s what happened this week in Victoria.
Justice Robert Johnston, the senior judge of the Supreme Court of B.C. in Victoria, shut down a complex trial Monday because a clerk was not available. In doing so, he tore a strip off the B.C. government, which is responsible for staffing B.C. courts.
“The province of British Columbia has failed in its constitutional obligation to properly fund the administration of justice,” Johnston said.
The trial, already past its 40th day, concerns a boundary dispute over First Nations Treaty 8, and involves representatives of the province, the federal government and five First Nations.
A court clerk is a sworn officer of the court whose duties include managing exhibits, recording proceedings and swearing in witnesses.
Three other court cases went ahead Monday, but were delayed at least 30 minutes each. A provincial courtroom was also shut down that day because of the lack of a clerk.
If the absence of a clerk in Johnston’s courtroom was due to budget constraints, as the judge implied, it’s a false economy that goes beyond absurdity. In the courtroom were seven lawyers, their assistants and a witness. A combined hour’s pay for the lawyers, judge and legal assistants would have easily covered a month’s salary for a court clerk, who earns $40,000 to $46,000 a year.
If these situations resulted from poor scheduling, then a shakeup in the management of the justice system is in order.
Court clerks are not the only support staff in short supply in Victoria. Last month, a trial for a man accused of possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking failed to go ahead because no sheriff was available.
Sheriffs are the uniformed men and women who transport people to and from jail and keep order in courtrooms.
In the end, the man accused of trafficking did not appear before a judge. He pleaded guilty instead to the lesser charge of possession of a controlled substance and was given a significantly shorter sentence than a trafficking conviction would have merited.
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. Sheriffs are paid about $57,000 a year.
In an emailed statement, the B.C. Justice Ministry 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.
A decline in delays is not good enough — they should be eliminated. While the costs incurred by delayed and cancelled trials are hefty, a greater issue is the proper administration of justice.
People involved in trials and other court proceedings often put their lives on hold until matters are sorted out. Innocent people are left in limbo, the guilty go unpunished, witnesses stand and wait. Legal costs mount.
We want our government to be efficient and frugal with our money. We don’t want a profusion of clerks and sheriffs if they are not needed.
But the savings gained from skimping on those modestly paid but necessary officers of the court are not savings at all if they jeopardize a fundamental principle of our constitutional democracy — the right to a speedy and fair trial.