The provincial government had advance warning from a senior official several weeks ago that cuts to the number of sheriffs guarding court houses could spark trouble in the justice system.
In a May 31 letter to B.C.'s chief justices, copied to the deputy Attorney General, Assistant Deputy Minister Rob Wood noted full-time staff levels in the court services branch had already been cut nine per cent since 2008/09.
"These fiscal changes have made it progressively more difficult to maintain operational service levels in both court security and court administration," Wood said.
Deeper cuts took effect at the beginning of June and Wood's letter set out minimum service levels for court registries and sheriffs, including a system of roving sheriffs to spread staff further.
Wood's letter indicated the number of court clerks has also been cut and the ministry would respond by reassigning court registry staff to act as clerks as needed.
He cautioned those levels would not be sustainable for long.
Wood also noted it would be up to judges to gauge the security risk and decide if they can operate without a dedicated sheriff using the rover system.
"The safety of all court participants is of paramount concern," he said.
"We will do everything we can, in consultation with the judiciary, to ensure the most important matters go forward and that the safety and security of the courts and court users is maintained."
The elimination of the equivalent of 34 full-time deputy sheriffs caused delays in several trials last month when some judges refused to let their trials proceed without a sheriff present.
By late June, Attorney General Barry Penner – after hearing directly from judges about their security concerns – pledged to reverse the cuts to sheriffs' hours.
But the cut hours have not been permanently restored and are only being scheduled a week at a time so far, said Dean Purdy, spokesman for the union representing sheriffs.
"We're concerned that they're so keyed into the budgetary side of things they're going to let the court system slide rather than truly fund the system," he said.
Purdy said two of the most senior managers in the system are currently filling in for sheriffs in Victoria because of the lack of deputy sheriffs.
"You can't do justice on the cheap," he said, adding the province needs to
hire more sheriffs to reverse some of the loss of more than 100 positions in recent years.
The NDP lashed the province for allowing "chaos" in the courts to continue and failing to find a permanent solution.
“It appears that when making this announcement, the Liberals were primarily interested in temporary damage control, not returning security to our courts so they can function again,” NDP Attorney General critic Leonard Krog said.
Penner said he doesn't want the shortage of sheriffs to result in trial delays and added his ministry is working to find more money to support staffing levels on an ongoing basis.
He said the auxiliary and part-time sheriffs whose hours were cut had always been called out as required.
"They will be utilized as required," Penner said. "The safety and security of our courthouses and the people in them remains our paramount objective."
He said most government ministries remain under pressure to cut costs and streamline processes as a result of health and education spending that has risen faster than government revenues.