Judges' pay review call rejected

Mon, Jul 4, 2011, 01:00

The Government is to press ahead with plans for a referendum to cut judges’ pay to take place on the same day as the presidential election, despite strong objections by the judiciary.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter yesterday rejected a proposal by the judges for any pay cuts, if they were to be made, to be decided by an independent body rather than the Oireachtas. He said the use of an outside body to set judges’ pay reductions was not relevant because they were not being targeted or subjected to different treatment from anyone else in the public service.

“The Government’s intention is to bring the pay of judges into line with that of other public servants who have been affected by the country’s economic and fiscal situation,” he told The Irish Times. “We are also committed to ensuring that the independence of the judiciary is protected.”

Mr Shatter also rejected criticisms by the judiciary of the proposed wording of a referendum, pointing out the draft wording was with Attorney General Máire Whelan and had yet to be finalised. The wording was designed to ensure that any reduction in pay could only occur where required by economic circumstances and there was no question of judges being singled out for pay cuts. He suggested “half a dozen” forms of wording could achieve this objective.

While there have been rumours that some judges might retire rather than accept a pay cut, Mr Shatter said no member of the judiciary had “directly communicated such a threat to me”.

The criticisms of the Government’s plans are contained in a 12-page critique drawn up by four senior judges at the request of the Chief Justice, Mr Justice John Murray, and the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.

The document, which claims that the proposed referendum would fundamentally compromise the independence of the judiciary, was given last week to Ms Whelan, who passed it on to members of the Government.

The document says the judiciary is concerned with the implications for their independence rather than their salaries per se, it was reported yesterday. “The issue here is not whether judges’ pay should be reduced, but rather how that reduction should be achieved,” it says.

It goes on to make detailed arguments against reducing judicial salaries because of the importance of maintaining the independence of judges, and points out that this has never happened in more than three centuries.

The pay cuts, which will save €5.5 million a year, according to Mr Shatter, would reduce the pay of senior judges by 23 per cent.

The salary of a judge of the Supreme Court would be cut to €198,226 from the current €257,872, and that of a judge of the High Court to €186,973 from €243,080.

Mr Shatter said enabling legislation would be introduced if the referendum was passed.

The intention would be to reduce the salaries of current members of the judiciary in line with the salary reductions already imposed on other public servants.

The Government was absolutely committed to holding the referendum, he said, to ensure that public respect for the judiciary was retained and there was no perception that judges were immune to the current economic difficulties of the country.

The Minister pointed out that other public sector workers had had their salary cut twice and added: “I’m not aware of any member of the judiciary having opted to take a reduction along these lines.”

Judges have been exempted from pay cuts to date under article 35.5 of the Constitution, which states: “The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office.”

The draft new article approved by the Cabinet last month reads: “The remuneration of judges shall not be reduced during their continuance in office save as may be regulated by law on the basis of reductions that are made by law, in the public interest, in the remuneration of persons generally or a class of such persons in the public service, including the Oireachtas and other office holders.”