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B.C. trial lawyers urge government action on sheriff shortage

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. says the shortage is a severe issue affecting the administration of justice.
A B.C. Sheriff Service patch on an officer's uniform.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. is calling on the government to take action on the ongoing sheriff shortage that has led to courtroom closures and delayed trials.

Association president Michael Elliott said the shortage, “is a severe issue that directly impacts the administration of justice.”

He pointed to the office of Attorney General Nikki Sharma as being responsible for ensuring adequate staffing of sheriffs and called for immediate action.

Delays in two recent major cases — a murder case and a murder conspiracy case, both on May 27 — left numerous lawyers and prosecutors waiting, and compromised the legal process, said Elliot. 

"The delay in these cases frustrates the public’s interest in timely trials,” he said. “The inability to proceed with court cases not only undermines the constitutional rights of the accused but also denies victims and their families the justice they deserve."

31 courtroom delays in one month

The May 27 delays came about after two jury trials coincided at the courthouse that day, forcing Vancouver Law Courts's sheriffs to prioritize staffing.

Elliot said those two incidents are not isolated.

Elliot said courtroom closures due to sheriff shortages have become increasingly common across the province, including in Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Surrey.

Between Aug. 14 and Sept. 13, 2023, there were 31 instances where court proceedings did not go ahead due to an absence of a sheriff.

Two instances took place in Abbotsford, one in North Vancouver, six in Port Coquitlam, and 22 in Surrey. All were in provincial court. In July 2023, sources told Glacier Media that courtroom closures included those in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, Victoria, Chilliwack and Kamloops. All were due to the sheriff shortage.

Government approach 'fundamentally flawed'

Elliot said the staff shortage compounds already existing challenges in B.C.’s justice system. He said the provincial government is already underfunding legal aid services by $100 million annually, further limiting access to justice for vulnerable populations.

"The government's approach to managing the justice system is fundamentally flawed," Elliott said. "The government underfunding legal aid and failing to adequately staff court security are both critical issues that need immediate attention.”

Elliot also criticized B.C. government’s Bill 21, the Legal Professions Act, which aims to create a single regulator not just for lawyers, but for notaries and paralegals. The stated goal, according to the provincial government, is to broaden access to legal services to improve access to the justice system.

“It is ironic and troubling that this same government has recently passed legislation aimed at giving government even more control of the legal profession under the guise of improving access to justice,” Elliot said.

The Law Society of B.C., which currently oversees the legal profession, has said it will mount a constitutional challenge to Bill 21. The society issued a statement May 16, claiming “unnecessary government direction and intrusion on the legal profession threatens those rights and freedoms.”

“Despite all opposition parties voicing strong concerns that the act threatens the independence of the legal profession, the B.C. government chose to limit further debate by invoking closure and adopting the flawed legislation,” the society said at the time.

The Ministry of Attorney General could not be immediately reached for comment. The ministry has previously stated intake for sheriff education at the Justice Institute of B.C. has been increased.

Attorney General Sharma has already acknowledged the problems created by the sheriff shortage. The provincial government, she said, is working on it.