Province reverses latest cuts to sheriffs

Critics warn much more needed to unclog courts

Sheriffs ensure security in court and handle prisoner transfers.

The province will pay for more sheriffs to guard court rooms, reversing cuts imposed late last month that triggered a wave of trial adjournments and sparked strong criticism from judges and lawyers.

Attorney General Barry Penner said the government will restore the hours of 52 auxiliary and part-time sheriffs, which had been sharply reduced in late May, bringing back the equivalent of 34 full-time positions.

Penner ordered his staff to find more money within the ministry budget to cover more sheriffs after judges told him they were uncomfortable about the safety of courtrooms in the wake of the reductions.

Under the cuts, a roving system was in force where each court didn’t necessarily have its own sheriff but was supposed to be able to call on one quickly if needed.

“I do not want cases to be adjourned or dismissed simply because a sheriff is not physically present in a courtroom,” Penner said in a statement. “This comes at a cost. Budgets are already tight because of rising health care costs and global economic uncertainty.”

At least 23 trials were delayed this month, including a murder case and home invasion case, after judges refused to run them without sheriffs present to provide security.

Penner noted auxiliary sheriffs work on an as-requested basis and he expects their hours to continue to fluctuate.

“We’re pleased to see the hours come back,” B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union spokesman Dean Purdy said.

“But really it’s just a Band-Aid solution. Even before the judges in many locations around the province were refusing to run their trials because of the shortage of deputy sheriffs.”

A hiring freeze in effect for the last couple of years has meant B.C. courts have lost more than 100 sheriffs to attrition prior to the now-reversed cuts.

Many departing sheriffs left for other higher-paying law enforcement jobs, Purdy said.

He’s also worried Penner’s plan to find money elsewhere in the ministry means “robbing from Peter to pay Paul.”

NDP Attorney General critic Leonard Krog said the restored hours will help but the government must commit to a broader overhaul of the embattled justice system.

“This doesn’t deal with all of the other issues plaguing the justice system,” he said.

“We are still down 17 judges across the province,” Krog said. “There are still not enough prosecutors. We know the premier, riding the wave of revulsion over the Vancouver riots, has promised swift prosecution. And we know there aren’t enough prosecutors to do it.”

The provincial court has warned 2,100 alleged criminals are at risk of walking free because their cases have already dragged on so long they are at risk of being quashed due to unacceptable delay.