THE RECENT furore surrounding judges and what they are paid, what they should be paid, and who’s trying to stop them filling up their deep pockets has now received the commentary of Victoria’s peak judicial body.
While judges launch a public campaign against those that vetoed recommendations for their pay increase, Victoria awaits the final vote in parliament on this now political issue.
Victoria’s Attorney General Rob Hulls was overruled by his cabinet colleagues recently when they voted to block a pay rise for judges and magistrates of 13.6 per cent. Recommended by the Judicial Remuneration Tribunal, the pay increase would be an addition to last year’s 8 per cent increase.
So the state’s judges have launched an unprecedented attack on the Government, claiming a decision to block the increase would make judges and magistrates in Victoria the lowest paid in Australia.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Victorian Bar Council chairman Robin Brett QC said the Council was “very disappointed” at the Government. He said it had acted wrongly in two ways. The first was that it “effectively said it would be happy for the Victorian judiciary to be paid less than other states”. Brett said this stance had expressed “a lack of confidence in Victorian courts as well as the state’s judges”.
“Currently, Victorian judges and magistrates are paid less than their interstate equivalents,” Brett said. “The State Government has now apparently decided that they should continue to be paid less … This is the wrong message to the people of Victoria.”
While a Supreme Court judge in NSW is paid $258,960, their counterparts in Victoria receive $227,100. In Queensland that judge would receive $234,115. Similarly, while a magistrate in NSW is paid $186,450 and in Queensland $188,240, their peers in Victoria receive $157,500.
The Victorian Government had not justified why the state’s judges should be paid less than other states, Brett said. “They have a wages policy to keep all pay increases within a limit and they say that this request is outside the limit, so they are rejecting it,” he said.
The second mistake the Government had made was to turn judges’ remuneration into a political matter. Arguing the Government had announced they were going to use their numbers in the lower house to disallow the recommendation that the Tribunal had made, Brett said “this is putting the agenda back into the political arena”.
“This can only compromise the independence of the state’s judiciary,” Brett said. Claiming the current legislation on judicial remuneration was introduced by the current state Government for the purpose of enhancing judicial independence, Brett said “the Government’s announcement indicates that they have now gone back on this basic principle”.
Law Institute of Victoria president Chris Dale also told Lawyers Weekly he was concerned by views that the Government should not adopt the increase because it was out of line with community expectations, arguing that this seemed “entirely spurious”.
Also concerned by the way in which the veto was announced — via a leak to a newspaper without any consultation with the judiciary — Dale said “that must represent a low point in communications”.
“One hopes that there may be improvements in that regard in the future”, he said.
In SA, Attorney General Michael Atkinson said that state would not follow Victoria’s lead by trying to block pay rises for judges. Unlike in Victoria, decisions by the Independent Remuneration Tribunal in SA were final, he said. In December last year, the state’s judges received a pay rise of 9.2 per cent, despite the A-G’s pleas to not exceed an increase of 3.6 per cent.