GOVERNMENT MINISTERS have been accused of being arrogant, overpaid and insulated from ordinary life. At a time of financial turmoil, however, they all accepted large pay cuts. Not so with judges. In spite of appeals to personal duty and responsibility, 22 judges have consistently refused to contribute towards mending the State’s finances and, as a result, have diminished the public standing of their colleagues.
Judicial independence is of vital importance in a properly regulated and democratic society. But that independence should be balanced by unselfish behaviour and a clear commitment to the common good. Giving good example, on and off the bench, is a basic requirement. In this case, however, one in seven judges has opted for greed and self-interest. Ignoring the appeals of Chief Justice John Murray who described voluntary contributions to a special fund for judges as “a matter of duty”, they held on to their full, very generous salaries.
This is not a question of oversight. The special fund was established two years ago by the Chief Justice in response to public dismay that judges were being exempted from a pension levy that applied to all other public servants. Last year, judges again avoided pay cuts ranging from 10-15 per cent because of constitutional advice received by the Government. The Minister for Finance indicated his concern by announcing a judicial pay freeze for the lifetime of the Government.
At a time when welfare payments are again being cut and the minimum wage reduced, the situation in relation to judiciary salaries is untenable. During the past decade, as the minimum wage rose by 54 per cent, judicial salaries jumped by more than three times that amount. A recent survey found they are the second best paid judges in the world.
Fine Gael has proposed a referendum that would allow cuts in judges’ pay at a time of financial crisis. But it may not be necessary. The Constitution seeks to protect individual judges against pay discrimination by a vengeful government. In this case, however, pay cuts would be universal; would be open to challenge and would be imposed in the public interest. Members of the judiciary have served this State with courage and distinction, upholding the concept of impartial treatment for all. Now, natural justice requires that the pain of reducing the State’s pay bill should also be shared. The selfishness of a hard core of 22 individuals should be resisted. The Government should call their bluff and cut their salary.