Skip to content

B.C. court closures concern civil liberties watchdog, criminal lawyer

"A lot of people have a lot of anxiousness about what is going on in the courts," said the BC Civil Liberties Association's Karen Mirsky.
BC Sheriff patch
The province has been facing a sheriff shortage, which has caused a delay in cases moving forward. Photo: Eric Thompson

B.C. courtroom closures due to an ongoing sheriff shortage could lead the accused to claim abuse of process in how their cases are handled, says the president of the province’s civil liberties watchdog.

And, said a criminal defence lawyer, courtrooms were closed in Surrey on Monday due to the shortage.

The closures have been ongoing for almost a year. The most recent were in Vancouver Provincial Court June 12 when multiple rooms were closed as sheriffs were sent to B.C. Supreme Court to cover shortages there.

Sheriffs are needed to provide courtroom security as well as move prisoners between courtrooms and courthouses.

When courtrooms go down, judges, Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers are left idle. Closures also result in delays in cases which can result in constitutional violations of defendants’ rights to speedy trials, rights that apply to all Canadians.

The Ministry of Attorney General stressed repeatedly that intake for sheriff education at the Justice Institute of B.C. has been increased and that more sheriffs are coming to alleviate the situation.

Civil liberties in peril

Karen Mirsky of the BC Civil Liberties Association said Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms speaks to the right to trial without unreasonable delay. She said when delays happen, the court looks at who is responsible for the delays.

Further, she explained, a stay of proceedings could happen in cases if evidence is led and accepted by the court that there has been a lack of government effort to resolve the situation.

“A lot of people have a lot of anxiousness about what is going on in the courts,” Mirsky said.

She said the impacts go further than just what is occurring at a court appearance or whether a person is an accused, a victim or someone else associated with a case.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the case you’re on,” Mirsky said. “It’s stressful coming to court.”

It's not uncommon for people living outside Metro Vancouver to get up early to get to court, creating “very real issues for people who are struggling,” she said.

“It’s more than an incidental inconvenience,” Mirsky said.

She understands the BC Sheriff Service and government are trying hard to fill vacant positions but acknowledged there's significant competition from police services who are luring away younger sheriffs with higher pay.

“The government needs to appreciate what is going on,” Mirsky said. “They do need to be competitive. It’s just another government system that is not getting enough government resources.”

She said it could be argued that delays are “a breach of process because the system is failing people.”

Premier David Eby was previously executive director os the association.

Glacier Media reached out to his office for comment about courtroom closures June 12 and again June 18 but received and was referred to the Ministry of Attorney General in the second instance.

Glacier Media has pushed the request to speak to the premier but was told he was unavailable.

Defence lawyer concerned

Defence lawyer Jayde Niefer said criminal, civil and family law cases were affected by Monday's Surrey courtroom closures.

She said two cases were triaged to proceed but the rest were adjourned due to a lack of sheriffs.

“It certainly makes things difficult,” Niefer said. “Clearly, we need to fix the problem.”

She said lawyers are prepped and ready to proceed. Clients are there as witnesses, police officers and members of the public interested in the cases, some taking the day off work to be there.

Mirsky echoed that concern, saying the impacts of cancelled court dates can be wide-ranging.

Niefer said sheriffs need to be supported.

“I understand why it’s happening,” Niefer said.

But, she added, “You can’t run a courtroom without a sheriff.”

Moreover, she said sheriffs need to be compensated in a manner that reflects their roles in the court system.

“They keep use safe every day,” she said.

A year of closures

The situation has been ongoing for a year or more with closures throughout the province as the government works to recruit and train sheriffs.

It was a year ago that a report to the chief sheriff indicated deputies were suffering from burnout and considering leaving the service for other law enforcement positions due to low pay and benefits.

The Trial Lawyers of BC complained to Victoria after delays in two recent major B.C. Supreme Court cases — a murder case and a murder conspiracy case, both on May 27 — left numerous lawyers and prosecutors waiting.