B.C.’s attorney general says the ailing BC Sheriff Service (BCSS) is being strengthened with better pay and benefits, increased recruitment and staff retention plans.
Niki Sharma’s comments come in response to problems with sheriff working conditions, burnout and attrition, all outlined in a report obtained by media.
The report said several "critical changes" would need to be implemented to reduce attrition rates and allow the sheriff service to replenish its ranks.
“The work sheriffs do is critical to ensure people have access to courtroom services,” Sharma said Sept. 27. “With law-enforcement agencies across the country experiencing recruitment and retention challenges, the BCSS listened to the concerns of sheriffs to better understand what changes are needed to help guard against court closures and improve working conditions, and that’s what we’re taking action on.”
Sharma said the government would be instituting a more competitive pay-and-benefits framework for sheriffs. She said sheriffs last had a pay increase in April.
She told Glacier Media she has travelled throughout B.C. and has spoken to sheriffs about their concerns and has seen their workplaces. She said she takes the issues outlined in the report seriously.
Anecdotally, sheriffs told Glacier Media they were skeptical and disappointed with the announcement, saying it would not stem the number of sheriffs leaving the service.
As Glacier Media has revealed in previous reporting, sheriff staffing shortages have led to courtroom closures, delaying cases. The knock-on effect of those delays is that the accused could be freed if their constitutional right to a speedy trial is not met.
On Sept. 26, one judge expressed concern about the delays.
“This is getting extremely long in the tooth,” Vancouver Provincial Court Judge Reginald Harris said of a 16-month-old case.
“We’ve got to get this moving. The community has an interest in matters being dealt with in a timely manner,” Harris said citing two cases from the Supreme Court of Canada. Harris did not specifically address a sheriff-related issue.
Stays of proceedings are possible if a case hits a ceiling of 18 months for those tried in the provincial court and 30 months for cases in superior courts.
Lawyers have already begun mentioning the application of the so-called Jordan principles whereby that right to a speedy trial is upheld. The Jordan principles stem from a case that wound up in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Delay attributable to or waived by the defence does not count towards the presumptive ceiling,” the high court said.
Glacier Media reported in July that courtroom closures had affected facilities in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, Victoria, Chilliwack and Kamloops.
Lack of staff to safely move prisoners inside courthouses is also causing delays, Glacier Media learned. That has also led to a decline of in-person appearances and greater use of video appearances. A lack of video rooms in prisons in the past two years has also exacerbated problems.
Earlier in September, the Ministry of Attorney General told Glacier Media closures are continuing to happen.
There were 31 instances where court proceedings did not go ahead due to an absence of a sheriff, between Aug. 14 and Sept. 13. Two instances took place in Abbotsford, one in North Vancouver, six in Port Coquitlam and 22 in Surrey. All of these instances were in provincial court.
“The ministry is working to ensure our courts are appropriately staffed and we will continue to monitor the issue,” the ministry said in a Sept. 18 statement to Glacier Media.
Among other initiatives Sharma pledged are:
• making it easier for people to apply to the sheriff program by removing financial barriers to achieve a low-cost, low-travel application process;
• starting a regional ambassador program to raise awareness at career events and support people through the application process;
• implementing a strategic-marketing campaign; and,
• creating a dedicated recruitment team with sufficient resources to increase recruitment activities.
Sharma said preliminary results indicate recruitment efforts are bearing fruit.
"We're going to do everything we can to make sure the sheriffs feel supported," she said.
The ministry said the service is working to further address compensation and scope of duties, increase training opportunities for staff, improve working conditions through training for managers and support for employees, and create a strategic plan that is specific to BCSS.
“Open and transparent dialogue with all parties continues to drive further action for sheriffs,” Sharma’s statement said.
The ministry said changes already implemented are having effects. It said recruitment efforts are already seeing positive results, with the BCSS’s summer intake receiving 624 applicants — a increase from the two previous intakes (251 in April and 229 in January).
The BCSS has notified the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC), where sheriffs are trained, that it hopes the March 2024 class will be the largest since 2010.
The ministry said 11 recruits will graduate Oct. 4, from the 11-week sheriff-training program run by the JIBC.
The new sheriffs will be dispatched to Victoria, Williams Lake, Nelson, Cranbrook and communities across the Lower Mainland. In November, a class of as many as 18 recruits will begin their training, graduating in January 2024.
Wages for deputy sheriffs begin at $67,729 a year, with five-year top wages set at $77,012. The top end for a sergeant is $84,135.
Comparatively, a Vancouver Police Department constable makes $77,793 at the low end and tops out at $115,707.
An RCMP constable earns $65,776 to start, with wages going up to $106,576.
Delta is the most generous with a starting wage of $83,040, with the high end being $118,342.
Training for would-be sheriffs takes 14 weeks at the JIBC, at a cost to the province of about $47,000 for each recruit, the report said.
Sheriffs are represented by the B.C. General Employees' Union (BCGEU). Dean Purdy, vice-president of the union's corrections and sheriff services component, said Sharma's comments reflect measures the union has sought for more than a decade.
"While these actions from the attorney general are a step in the right direction to address the staffing crisis in BC Sheriff Service, more needs to be done," Purdy said.
He said the union identified to Sharma in August priorities such as moving the sheriffs to a 40-hour work week, expanding sheriffs' duties, moving the service out of the Court Services Branch into its own branch under the Ministry of Attorney General and implementing an early retirement program.
"These would be possible solutions that would help address these ongoing and significant recruitment and retention challenges," Purdy said. "The recently announced recruitment and retention incentive payment — which our union advocated and pushed for at many levels over the past few years — was welcomed news for the nearly 2,500 members in our Corrections and Sheriff Services Component. It's a path towards ensuring sheriffs are paid fairly, but is not pensionable and is not in the wage grid."
He said the BCGEU will be watching wages in other law enforcement organizations as they negotiate new contracts.
"We've heard anecdotally that these agencies may be receiving significant pay increases, which would further increase the pay gap," Purdy said. "The bottom line is that sheriffs must be paid a fair wage for their work, and the number one way to recruit and retain sheriffs is to increase their pay. This is what our members have been telling us for years, and what the recently released report from the BC Sheriff Service also revealed."
The Trial Lawyers Association of BC (TLABC) has already expressed concern about the court closures and their impact on access to justice.
TLABC criminal defence committee chair Rebecca McConchie said in August the functioning of the criminal justice system, particularly in busier jurisdictions, would be harmed by courtroom closures.
“Accused persons are usually required to attend court in person for substantive court proceedings, including trials,” McConchie said.
She said delays are not fair to the accused, complainants, witnesses, lawyers and judges, who devote time, energy and resources into preparing to fulfil their respective roles in the court process.