Holding a referendum is only way to reduce judges' salaries
TWO years ago, Ireland's judges found themselves in the spotlight following the introduction of a mandatory pension levy that saw everyone, from welfare claimants to Taoiseach Brian Cowen, endure pay cuts of between 5pc and 10pc.
Judges were caught up in an unprecedented public backlash because they, along with President Mary McAleese, were exempt from the mandatory levy measure.
President McAleese volunteered a 10pc cut, forgoing €32,500 of her €325,000 annual salary because of the economic crisis. She has since reduced it to €200,000.
But there was uproar when then Attorney General Paul Gallagher advised the Government the pension levy could not apply to the country's judges who had been slow to volunteer a pay cut in lieu of the levy.
Article 35.5 of the Irish Constitution states that the pay of a judge shall not reduced during his or her term in office.
The objective of the constitutional ban is to safeguard the independence of the judges by ensuring they are not subject to political pressures or favours.
Following the announcement of the levy, Chief Justice John Murray, who earns €295,000 a year -- almost twice as much as the chief justice in the United States -- arranged a scheme with the Revenue Commissioners whereby judges could make voluntary payments in lieu of the levy.
Some 126 judges coughed up €1.2m in voluntary pay cuts last year but some are refusing to pay the levy.
Of the 147 Supreme, High, Circuit and District Court judges, there were 21 who failed to make any voluntary contribution, according to recent Revenue figures.
The idea that judges' pay should be reduced has deeply divided the judiciary.
Many felt the cut should have been applied across the board owing to the financial emergency and the widening budget deficit.
Others believed the threat to judicial independence was overstated as it was the judiciary as a class and not individual judges who would be subject to the pay cut.
But some believe the threat to judicial independence lies in treating judges as if they were ordinary civil servants instead of an independent organ of the State.
A small band feel that they already took a pay cut when they left private practice to become a judge, even though they enjoy "diamond-encrusted" pensions.
A referendum will be required to change the Constitution to allow for a reduction in judges' pay.