Lawyers raise concerns as sheriff shortages cause court delays

A sheriff's vehicle is pictured at the back entry of the Penticton Courthouse on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Trial lawyers in B.C. are calling on the provincial government to address an ongoing shortage of sheriffs it says has led to dozens of delays and cancellations in the court system in recent months, weeks and even days.

The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. said two high-profile cases were delayed on May 27 alone due to the sheriff shortage, and just last week, five Vancouver courtrooms were closed for the day.

The province said that for security reasons, it was not able to confirm this.

At least 86 court appearances were cancelled or delayed in 2023.

"It undermines the constitutional rights of the accused to a trial within a reasonable amount of time and denies victims and their families the timely justice they deserve," association president Michael Elliott told CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

It's not exactly a new problem—a 2007 CBC story shows that a sheriff shortage was causing delays 17 years ago.

Last year, an internal report revealed major issues with the recruitment and retention of sheriffs in B.C., attributing the issue to poor pay, a toxic work environment and issues with management.

The province responded, promising more money to hire more sheriffs, but the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. says it's taking too long.

The B.C. Sheriff Service is a law enforcement agency, similar to police or correctional officers. They ensure safety in courthouses, transport people in custody and manage courthouse detention cellblocks.

"Their jobs are very difficult," Elliott said. "There is an element of danger to them."

And without them, Elliott added, court proceedings can't move forward.


According to the province, sheriffs are paid a salary equivalent to about $50,000 per annum pro-rated during a mandatory 14-week training session. However, they must sign a return-of-service agreement stating that they will have to repay those training costs if they don't stay for at least two years.

After training, sheriffs make between $69,000 and $79,000 a year and are eligible for recruitment, incentive and benefit payments.

The 2023 report said that up to 50 per cent of sheriffs work second jobs to make ends meet in B.C., where the cost of living continues to climb. It said that sheriffs also rely on overtime work to make ends meet.

That same report found that more than 11 per cent of deputy sheriffs left their jobs in 2022-23 years.

In a statement to CBC, B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma said the province is "working hard" to improve working conditions and recruit and retain more sheriffs and suggested there has been some progress.

"This spring's sheriff graduating class is the largest in recent memory – and the first group of them will be on the ground working in courthouses starting next month," Sharma said.

"There's more to do, and we will continue to take action to strengthen our sheriff service so that our courts have the staffing they need."

The province said 13 sheriffs have been hired since the September 2023 announcement.

"That's woefully insufficient," Elliott said.

However, the province says the next class of sheriffs is set to graduate this week with 34 new sheriffs, and another 19 are expected to graduate on July 10. Each group of new grads joins the force roughly four weeks after graduation, according to data from the province.

By February 2025, the province estimates it will have trained up to 114 new sheriffs.

The province said that it could not say how many sheriffs are needed to operate at full capacity for security reasons.

Waiting for trials

Elliott worries that the longer the sheriff shortage persists, the more people will suffer.

Under the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan decision in 2016, which established case timelines, cases must be dealt with within 18 months in provincial and youth courts and 30 months in superior courts, like the B.C. Supreme Court.

If they don't get handled within that time, Elliott said, the charges are stayed — and the accused goes free.

"The justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy," Elliott said.

"It is the government's responsibility to ensure it operates efficiently and fairly. The current state of affairs is unacceptable, and immediate action is required to restore public confidence in our judicial system."

LISTEN | Trial lawyers association urges province to hire more sheriffs