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Saturday 16 December 2017

Kenny to force pay cuts on all judges despite resistance

Taoiseach will hold referendum to remove constitutional block

Fionnan Sheahan and Michael Brennan

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is planning to cut the salaries of all judges, despite repeated resistance from members of the judiciary who wish to maintain their pay levels.

Judges have been protected from pay cuts so far by a clause in the Constitution. But now the Government is pressing ahead with plans for a referendum -- possibly by the end of the year -- to give it the power to reduce their salaries.

In the meantime, the salaries of new judges will be reduced.

Judges earn from €295,000 -- paid to Chief Justice John Murray -- down to district court judges on €148,000.

There has been resistance among judges to accept the same pain inflicted upon other public servants.

Mr Kenny also effectively ignored concerns expressed by the Chief Justice about the impact of recent tax changes on judges' pensions.

Mr Justice Murray's decision to bring the matter up in his first meeting with Mr Kenny since his appointment as Taoiseach raised eyebrows in government circles. A coalition source said. "It was highly inappropriate for the Chief Justice to be in with the Taoiseach and raising it."

Following a secret meeting with Mr Justice Murray, where the matter was discussed, Mr Kenny didn't pass on the judge's worries to either Finance Minister Michael Noonan or Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

The issue of judges' pay has been a constant thorn in relations between successive Governments and the judiciary.

The Chief Justice was previously involved in controversy over judges' pay two years ago when he hit out at what he called "unfair and misleading statements" about judges' pay.

In a rare public statement, Mr Justice Murray responded to criticism, following the revelation that only 19 of the country's 148 judges had opted to make a voluntary contribution in lieu of the public-service pension levy.

The judges could not be forced to pay the levy, due to the Constitution, but Mr Justice Murray arranged a scheme where a voluntary contribution of the same amount could be paid. However, some are still refusing to pay it voluntarily.

The latest figures from the Revenue Commissioners show that 21 judges failed to make any voluntary contribution last year.

Of the 28 people in the public sector earning more than €250,000, eight of these are understood to be judges.

The salaries of the judiciary range from the €295,000 paid to the Chief Justice down to district court judges getting €148,000.

Supreme Court judges earn €258,000, High Court judges are paid €243,000 and Circuit Court judges receive €177,554.

But the Government has again signalled its intent to cut their wages, in line with reductions to other senior public servants.

Last night, a spokesperson pointed out that the Programme for Government says priority will be given to "a referendum to amend the Constitution to allow the State to cut the salaries of judges in restricted circumstances as part of a general cut across the public sector".

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is carrying out a review of the salaries of high-ranking public servants.

But judges' pay cannot legally be cut because of that provision in the Constitution.

While Article 35.5 precludes the reduction in pay of currently serving judges, this does not apply to newly nominated judges, according to the Government.


"Proposals will be brought to Government shortly to facilitate a reduction in the rates to be applied to newly appointed judges," a spokesperson said.

Mr Shatter is responsible for preparing the ground for the referendum, including the drafting of legislation.

"The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence will be pursuing this matter," the spokesperson said.

The Government has yet to announce when this referendum will be held but it is expected to happen on the same day as the Presidential election in November.

Government sources say the referendum is legally complicated, but the Coalition is determined to proceed with it.

"It is very much on the agenda. Getting it across the line isn't easy. But at the same time the determination is there," another source said.


Irish Independent

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