Friday 22 September 2017

Do judges really have cause for complaint? Over to you, the jury

Ciaran Byrne

One TD this week attacked the 'panto lifestyle' of Irish judges. It was a jibe that further antagonised our learned friends in the increasingly fevered debate over their pay and perks.

Frothing outrage has so far marked discussions over judges' pay and pensions and there has been no shortage of blustering politicians queuing up to have their pop at the judiciary.

With the Government planning to cut the remuneration of the country's 147 judges, ministers claim there is no plot to single them out or threaten their independence.

Yet this November, voters will be asked to vote in a referendum on judges' pay which, combined with new caps on public pensions, has prompted many judges to fear that the judiciary is being targeted.

That judges get a handsome stipend is not in doubt; a quick look at current figures shows a High Court judge pulls in €243,080 a year while a District Court judge is getting €8,000 a month after tax -- enough to keep six families in social welfare for that period of time.

Then there's the matter of the perks and privileges, many of them hopelessly old-fashioned but very jealously protected.

Circuit, High and Supreme Court judges still enjoy the services of tipstaffs to tend to their every need (they are paid assistants who perform backroom tasks such as admin and paper shuffling and introduce the judge to the court) and they collect their own €30,000-a-year booty.

Judges also benefit from a substantial array of expenses, ranging from allowances for wigs of €2,195 and €745 a year to buy 18th century-style 'frock coats'. They also enjoy 36 days paid holidays a year.

So, the pay is great and the perks too. But apparently it's never been a tougher time to be judge -- anywhere.

Judges all over the world are well paid and it's not just Ireland where their salaries have long been a source of green-eyed envy from their political masters and the public at large.

In Britain, the country's 2,000 judges have recently become the first public employees facing legislation that will mean they pay more for their pensions.

The Pensions Bill 2011, which started its progress through Parliament this week, changes the rules of their schemes to enable higher contributions. How much extra they must pay is not specified and will be up to the government.

Just last week, the New York Times reported on how judges in its home state were quitting the bench in record numbers amid dissatisfaction over pay freezes which had lasted 12 years.

"There is perhaps no more fitting finale to a long legal career than a judgeship. Ascending the bench after years appearing before it can bring power, respect, personal satisfaction, reasonable hours and, often, free parking," said the Times.

But now, said the newspaper, New York had one of the more extreme examples of a growing pay gap nationally between judges and other professionals, including partners at top law firms.

"I never expected to get rich as a judge, but I never expected to get poor either," said Robert A Spolzino, who resigned as an appellate judge in Brooklyn to return to law practice.

Some believe Ireland could soon be in the same position. As the row over pay and pension pots rages, legal sources here claim the New York situation could be repeated in this country with the best barristers shunning the prize of a judgeship in favour of continuing with much more lucrative private practice.

It's worth casting a wider eye over what judges get paid in other countries.

Here, our Chief Justice John Murray pulls in €295,916 a year compared with the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales on €240,000.

In Ireland, a Supreme Court judge is paid €257,872 -- a huge jump on Germany where the same position commands almost two-thirds less at €86,478. That's why many believe our legal salaries are too high, so just what are Ireland's judges moaning about?

Well, for a start they believe new Justice Minister Alan Shatter is determined to put one over on them.

For years Mr Shatter, a solicitor, clashed with judges and barristers in the Four Courts.

Such behaviour sounds petty, but in a world rich in eccentricity, status and symbolism, things like this matter.

Observers of the Irish legal scene who have privately spoken to judges in recent weeks say there is an acceptance among them that they made errors in resisting pay cuts.

By the end of last year, up to a fifth of the judiciary had yet to offer up a voluntary pay cut, 18 months after the idea was first mooted.

It showed a level of arrogance, a disconnect between them and people struggling to pay bills and keep their homes.

But the issue, judges say, is not black and white and they are determined to resist the planned reductions in their pay and changes to their pensions.

One legal observer said: "They insist the job they do is a job for the country. In private practice they could have earned many multiples of what they are paid as a judge.

"Cuts to their pensions would have very real effects on their retirements and it's something they feel powerless about.

"They even feel a sense of betrayal."

It was Fine Gael's Derek Keating who rather theatrically called on Mr Shatter to "get rid of the wigs, gowns and tipstaff from a bygone day".

"Simply put, we cannot afford the panto lifestyle of our senior judges," he said.

Whatever the truth of that statement, it seems judges will be able to do little to stop what's coming.

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