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'Chronic stress': Sheriffs and court staff suffering burnout and fatigue

B.C. court sheriffs and support staff report a lack of workers, leaving them overworked, mentally taxed and without new people to fill rank.
B.C. court sheriffs and support staff are reporting burnout and short-staffing.

This is part four of a Glacier Media investigative series on the impacts of mental health on the court system. Part one examined mental health and accused people. In part two, B.C. Provincial Court Judge Melissa Gillespie explained how court proceedings are kept moving forward. Part three examined the stresses on lawyers and judges and part five looked at solutions.

When we think of the operations of the courts, the image is generally that of the accused, the lawyers and judges.

Also there, though, are the sheriffs and the clerks who keep the courts functioning.

They hear what everyone else hears, some of it grim and sickening.

And, as they hear such things, they have to ensure the courts and participants are all secure.

The mental health impacts of those workers formed part of a July 2023 report to the province’s chief sheriff.

“Repeated exposure to high-pressure and challenging situations involving individuals in crisis can also contribute to chronic stress and fatigue,” the report said.

“Sheriffs noted that they often deal with difficult situations, such as physically violent and verbally abusive inmates or members of the public. Participants also noted that law enforcement agencies face increasing demands due to the prevalence of mental health and substance use issues in the community, as well as an increase in public scrutiny and criticism.”

So what does that mean?

The short answer is that courtrooms are being closed due to staffing shortages — particularly sheriffs. That means cases get delayed and, if that delays cases too long, accused people could be released if their constitutional right to a speedy trial is violated.

The sheriffs

What the BC Sheriff Service and sheriffs are grappling with is the detrimental effects of these shortages on their workloads and overall operations.

“With limited resources and high attrition rates, sheriffs are struggling to meet the demands of their workload, often working below capacity and experiencing heightened levels of stress,” researchers found. “The consequences of understaffing are far-reaching, impacting job satisfaction, safety, supervisory responsibilities, and the well-being of personnel.”

Moreover, sheriffs deal with potentially dangerous situations in courtrooms, cells and prisoner transport.

Proceedings are delayed as a sheriff isn’t immediately available to escort an accused to the courtroom.

“In a number of offices, sheriffs stated that the staffing shortages are so severe that they are unable to safely staff jails and courthouses and are scrambling for coverage, leading to delays in response times for emergency calls and critical situations,” the report said. “Sheriffs in offices with shortages also reported that they are required to work alone in potentially dangerous situations, dealing with potentially aggressive individuals, running escorts, and guarding prisoners.”

When dealing with prisoner transports, sheriffs reported facing increased risk as staffing shortages can require them to work alone when conducting escorts.

“One sheriff may have to run a solo vehicle escort for multiple violent offenders,” the report found.

And, for the protection of sheriffs and the public, sheriffs have noted that two sheriffs should be allocated for all flight escorts to ensure the safety of the public and allow for breaks on long-haul commercial flights.

Overall, sheriffs emphasized a need for urgent organizational change to address the issues of stress, burnout, and increased sick leave usage.

The Ministry of Attorney General said the BC Public Service Agency’s occupational health and rehabilitation team conducts a pre-placement medical examination to screen individuals applying to become a sheriff. The examination includes a medical fitness evaluation, a medical history check and a physical examination.

Attorney General Niki Sharma has told Glacier Media of ongoing changes to improve sheriff working conditions and staff retention.

Candidates also complete a health questionnaire followed by an interview to assess any conditions that relate to the demands and occupational risks of the profession. The conditions can include physical and mental illness, the ministry said.

The ministry noted staff members who report or seem to be experiencing mental health or wellness issues, or who are involved in incidents which may impact them, have access to or may be referred to counselling resources, peer-to-peer critical incident support team members, and a clinical psychologist.

“Court Services Branch also has a committee, including sheriffs, which offers proactive learning opportunities and other activities to promote health and wellness,” the ministry said. “Annual psychological check-ins with a psychologist are not mandatory for sheriffs.”

Further, the ministry said there are layered supports in place, some applicable to the broader public service, and others specific to the sheriff service, such as the critical incident stress management team.

“Overseen by a registered clinical psychologist, this team consists of specially trained sheriffs that are distributed throughout the province and trained to help staff cope after a critical incident,” the ministry said. “Members of the team are trained to know when someone should be referred for further professional services.”

Support staff

Sheriffs and judges aside, the courts’ public face is the clerks who occupy the seats in front of judges in court. In addition to them are the registry staff.
All are represented by the BC General Employees' Union.

The union said those workers deal with a multitude of high-stress situations, including the emotional impact of the cases they handle. That vicarious trauma can come from family and other cases in addition to criminal cases.

“One thing to reiterate is the significance of the cumulative exposure and work on files that are potentially not always visible and different from a critical incident,” union spokesperson Gurjeevan Sidhu said. “The information is going to impact members the most when they are first exposed to it.”

Sidhu said such employees are the lowest paid in government and receive a lack of acknowledgement. As well, Sidhu said, clerks often experience significant power imbalances at the whim of the judiciary.

Stresses can increase due to cases going overtime during work days, safety issues without enough sheriffs for security, and inadequate numbers of clerks for smooth court functioning, Sidhu told Glacier Media.

The union said short staffing for clerks is creating extra stress for those workers. And, it’s, exacerbated by a revolving door of clerks who move on to higher-paying jobs outside of government. 

That means the employer has to train new clerks constantly, a situation made problematic as the list of trainers is getting smaller as older clerks retire. 

Chief judge

Provincial Court Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie told Glacier Media sheriffs are law enforcement professionals present in courthouse common areas, courtrooms and grounds, and are responsible for ensuring everyone’s safety, including members of the public, witnesses, victims, the judiciary, legal counsel and accused.

“Sheriffs will notify the judiciary immediately if they are unable to staff a courtroom,” Gillespie said. “The lack of sufficient sheriff resources in a particular location and for a particular courtroom may result in matters being adjourned and rescheduled by the court to a later date when safety issues cannot be appropriately addressed.”