A home invasion trial at the B.C Supreme Court was suspended on Wednesday because of a shortage of sheriffs.
Criminal defense lawyer Richard Fowler said he had arrived at the courtroom Wednesday morning only to be told by the judge that the trial will be delayed because no sheriff is available to staff the courtroom. Until a sheriff is available to ensure security and decorum, the trial will remain suspended, she said.
Courtrooms in Kelowna, Kamloops and Victoria were also shut recently due to a lack of sheriffs. Last week, the province cut the equivalent of 34 full-time deputy sheriff positions in an attempt to balance the provincial budget. These cuts are the latest setbacks to a backlogged justice system already facing a severe shortage of judges and cuts to legal aid, said Mr. Fowler.
"It's inappropriate for sheriffs to be cut in this way," he said. "They're a central part of the operation of justice. Security issues can arise in unpredictable ways, not just in cases with obvious safety concerns. Witnesses and other members can get upset and angry, and the sheriffs are there to protect everybody."
Dean Purdy, chair of the government and service employees union representing B.C. sheriffs, said that while he is concerned about impacts on safety and on workers who have been laid off, he is also worried about the denial of justice due to court delays.
"We don't think that the court services and the sheriff services is the place to reduce spending," he said. "Anytime you have delays in court, justice is denied and it's the general public that has to suffer. If this isn't a wake-up call for the Attorney-General's office, then we don't know what is."
The Ministry of the Attorney-General released a statement Wednesday afternoon in response to the delayed court proceedings. It stated that while the safety and the security of the province's courthouse is a top priority, the ministry will deploy sheriffs wherever possible within budget constraints.
"B.C. continues to face fiscal challenges as a result of a struggling global economy. We are working to balance the provincial budget, which is still in deficit, even while increasing funding for health and education. This means other ministries have had to adjust to reduced budgets and strive to get the best value for every taxpayer dollar we spend."
Mr. Fowler calls the government's attempt to save money by cutting sheriff positions "short-sighted."
"The shortage of manpower means that sheriffs have to make decisions about where to allocate resources," he said. "But think of the expense of moving bodies from New Westminster to Chilliwack, or of police officers coming to court, prepared to testify, but realizing their trial was delayed and they have to come again tomorrow and be taken off duty. It doesn't save money, it probably costs the system more money."