Monday 24 September 2018

Andrew Lynch: Referendum on judges' pay is a nonsense ... and Alan Shatter should know better

What exactly is the point of a referendum on judges' pay? By most calculations, it will save the country around €250,000 a year at most. At the same time, it will cost at least €2m to print and count all the ballot papers -- which suggests that at the very least, targeting the judiciary should be a long way down the Government's list of priorities.

Even if it made financial sense, however, there are very good reasons why we should think long and hard before slashing judges' pay packets by over 30pc.

True, men and women of the bench take home salaries that must seem enormous to the average worker. But they are given big bucks for a very good reason -- to ensure that they are completely free from even the slightest hint of corruption.

This is why judges are in a totally different category from the commercial state company bosses, whose wages are in the firing line over Brendan Howlin's new proposals for public sector reform.

The minister wants to put a cap of €250,000 on all semi-State employees, although he admits that he cannot force existing semi-State chiefs to take a cut if they don't want to.

In the case of chief executives such as Padraig McManus of the ESB, who earns €400,000 a year and took home €752,000 in 2009 thanks to bonuses and other payments, all the Government can do is apply moral pressure -- and, oddly enough, nobody is rushing to get their chequebooks out just yet.


With judges, it's different. Eamon de Valera's constitution specifically exempted our learned friends from pay cuts, just to make sure that the Government and judiciary could operate without any interference from each other.

Dev may well have been influenced by recent events in the United States, where President Roosevelt had caused outrage by trying to pack the Supreme Court with liberal judges who would be favourable to his own political agenda.

Now Alan Shatter wants to change all that. The gung-ho Minister for Justice has confirmed that a referendum on this issue will be held on the same day as the presidential election, making judges fair game from now on.

He is obviously convinced that given the public's desire to see people at the top take their fair share of pain, it will be passed by an overwhelming majority -- and he could well be right.

Before rushing to judgment, however, put yourself in the position of someone presiding over a high-profile gangland murder trial. We know that jurors and witnesses have received death threats in the past, so it seems safe to assume that judges are subject to the same kind of pressure.

Up the road in Northern Ireland, some of them have even been killed themselves for putting certain terrorists behind bars.

The truth is that we have been extremely well served by the quality of our judges over the years.

The Government clearly sees judges as an easy target, portraying them as members of a pampered elite who need to be cut down to size.

In fact, the record shows that most judges have shown themselves more than willing to make a financial sacrifice in order to show solidarity with victims of the recession.


The public sector pension levy did not apply to them, but almost 90pc decided to sign up for it voluntarily -- paying a total of €1.26m to the Revenue last year, or roughly five times what the Government hopes to save under its new proposals.

So, the original question remains -- what exactly is the point of a referendum on judges' pay? Unless Alan Shatter can provide a better answer, the suspicion must be that he is guilty of some pretty bad judgment himself.

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