Government needs to call senior judges’ bluff on pay

Opinion: It is possible to live a very comfortable life on €170,000 a year

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 12:01

We were in a queue, lining up to pay our respects at a funeral, and there were lots of legal people there. One called out to a retired judge behind me, asking him how he was managing to live on his reduced pension. “Like a mendicant friar,” the judge called back mournfully. “Like a mendicant friar.”

Then they both started to talk about wine, and a particularly good wine which came from a small vineyard in the south of France owned by a colleague, and whether the wine at the King’s Inns was good enough. It’s not easy, being a mendicant friar. . . with a taste for fine wine.

I think judges should be paid as good a salary and pension as the State can afford. Right now, the State can’t afford to pay the sort of salaries and pensions it paid during the boom. It never could afford to pay the sort of salaries and pensions it paid during the boom and probably never will again.

What the times demand
In 2011 a High Court judge was paid €243,080. Judges appointed before January 2012 are now paid €191,306 and judges appointed after that time earn salaries of €172, 710. Pensions for those who have done their full years of service are €85,000 or more. It’s not princely compared with what went before. But it is what the times demand. And it is possible to live a very comfortable life on a salary of €172, 710 and a comfortable life on €85,000. Ask the rest of us.

However, two eminent judges,the Chief Justice, Mrs Justice Susan Denham, and the president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, have raised an important issue in letters to the Government published in this newspaper on Tuesday in a story by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic.

They argued that reduced salaries are making the High Court a less attractive proposition and that there may be a dearth of applications for forthcoming posts. The Chief Justice has pointed out that the reduced salaries create a particular difficulty for High Court judges whose family homes are outside Dublin. She has asked that the Government allow her to pay their travel and accommodation expenses out of Courts Service funds. The Government has said no.

Now, who is right here? The Chief Justice said the Government’s decision “may well contribute to a ‘second-best’ judiciary in Ireland” and that it will mean the High Court becomes more Dublin- based.

High-flying barristers
Another very thoughtful legal eagle pointed out to me one of the dangers of having a second-best judiciary: that high- flying and high-earning barristers would be able to run rings around the unfortunate judge in the courtroom, and that just such a scenario was being talked about openly in the Law Library.

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