Tuesday 23 May 2017

Shatter bows to judges' pressure over referendum

Sam Smyth and Dearbhail McDonald

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has bowed to pressure from senior judges over the wording of a controversial referendum on judicial pay.

Judges face the prospect of having their pay cut by up to 23pc if the referendum is passed in October. However, the judiciary has secured a crucial change to the wording, meaning that pay cuts of this scale are likely to be a one-off.

The last-minute change means that any further cuts to judges' pay must be "proportionate" and can only be applied if public servants also take a similar hit. This means that judges can't be singled out for future cuts in salary.

The Irish Independent has learned that senior judges lobbied the Attorney General Maire Whelan on the wording after receiving legal advice from an "eminent" senior counsel.

They warned that the original wording would be open to constitutional challenge as it could allow politicians to subject judges to greater cuts than public servants.

The significant win for the judges follows months of wrangling between the Coalition and the judiciary over cuts to their pay and pensions.

The stand-off has been strained by tensions between Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Ms Whelan, who liaised with the Cabinet on the judges' behalf and who held a private meeting last Friday with the Chief Justice, Ms Justice Susan Denham.

It is understood that the Attorney General, who is chief legal advisor to the State and has a seat at the cabinet table, did not expressly sign off on or approve the original draft.

Pay cuts

However, Ms Whelan, who advised the Government that the reduction in judges' pay should be "proportionate", did sign off on the new changes.

October's referendum will give politicians wide-ranging powers to slash judges' salaries for the first time ever.

Serving High and Supreme Court judges will face immediate cuts of up to 23pc in their pay if the public votes in favour.

Under the planned pay cuts, which will bring overall savings of some €5.5m a year, the €257,872 annual salary of a Supreme Court judge will be cut by €60,000 and the €243,080 salary enjoyed by a High Court judge will be reduced by €55,000.

Judges wanted an independent body to set judicial pay. They also claimed that the original wording of the referendum would "undermine" and "effectively end" judicial independence.

They secured legal advice from a senior counsel, who warned that the original wording could lead to "unintended consequences" and could see judicial pay targeted in the future.

That advice was passed to the Cabinet through Ms Whelan, whose office has traditionally acted as a conduit between the Government and the judiciary.

It specifically urged that the wording should contain an express safeguard of "proportionality" because there was currently no link between the reduction in judges' pay and that of other public servants.

The concession is regarded as a major success for Ms Justice Denham, the country's first female and first Protestant Chief Justice, has already waived a €38,000 pay increase which she had been due to receive when she was elevated to the post earlier this year.

Irish Independent

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