Ongoing issues with a shortage of sheriffs across the province is resulting in delays and cancellations in court proceedings, according to a new report.
The report, titled Understanding Recruitment and Retention in the BC Sheriff Service (BCSS), was released this month and has been leaked to some media, including The Abbotsford News.
It was compiled for the provincial government by consultants Business Research and Diagnostics from October 2022 to February 2023 and included staff surveys and focus groups.
The 175-page report says the issue has come to the forefront in the last three years, “with the number of exits surpassing the organization’s capacity to recruit and train new staff.”
“Consequently, there have been numerous instances where courtrooms through the province have operated without a deputy sheriff present,” it states.
“If this situation continues, it could lead to court closures and limited access to justice for British Columbians.”
An individual, who asked to remain anonymous, told The News that staffing shortages recently resulted in five courtrooms having to be closed in one day at Surrey provincial court. As well, three courtrooms were shut down in Abbotsford on July 21, 24, 25 and 26.
The report says the shortage has resulted in an increased workload for existing staff, longer wait times for court appearances, and delays and procedural stays in some “high-profile trials.”
There are approximately 550 sheriffs and 89 court locations across B.C. Their responsibilities include manning courtrooms; supervising holding cells; transporting prisoners to and from courthouses, correctional facilities, police detachments and hospitals; serving court orders; executing arrest warrants; and managing juries.
To become qualified, they take a 14-week course at the Justice Institute of BC.
There are three recruitment classes a year, each with a capacity of 24 people, but the report states those classes are often only half full or less.
According to the report, the primary reason that BCSS is having difficulty retaining and recruiting staff is “low and uncompetitive pay and benefits,” drawing employees into other work with policing, Corrections and the Canada Border Services Agency.
Salary rates – effective April 9, 2023 – for a deputy sheriff start at almost $68,000 in the first year and rise to $77,000 in year five.
This compares to the five-year rates for a border service agent of $75,000 to $89,000, an RCMP officer of $66,000 to $106,000 and municipal officers in Abbotsford ($72,000 to $112,000), Surrey ($80,000 to $115,000) and Delta ($83,000 to $119,000).
The shortage has led to increased stress, burnout and sick leave among existing staff, the report states.
“Many employees indicated that they are currently overworked, doing double shifts, working extensive overtime, covering staffing gaps, and are physically and mentally exhausted, which could compromise their judgment and decision-making skills during a critical incident.”
Other issues of concern listed in the report include employees wanting to extend their work week from 35 to 40 hours, and wanting BCSS to operate under the attorney general’s ministry rather than as part of the Court Services Branch.
“Sheriffs can be assisting in other part of enforcement duties and are fully trained and equipped with the tools but are strictly turned down,” said the person who contacted The News.
The report lists 25 recommendations, including an annual salary for sheriffs of $85,000 to $90,000 and establishing the BCSS as its own branch within the Ministry of Attorney General.
Attorney General Niki Sharm said in a written statement that the ministry is “taking the report seriously.”
“Sheriffs play a critical role in our justice system and are integral in ensuring people have safe access to court services,” she said.
“I know recruitment and retention has been an ongoing issue for the BC Sheriff Service and that’s why a thorough review of the service was conducted, based on sheriff feedback, to find out how we can improve workplace satisfaction.”
She said the next step in the process is “better understanding these issues and how to address them.”
“We … are committed to acting swiftly and accordingly to ensure that the BC Sheriff Service is a better workplace for everyone,” Sharma said.