Putting the judiciary on overtime
If I were a member of the judiciary I wouldn’t be jumping over the moon because of the agreement on new working conditions signalled by Justice Minister Chris Said. The agreement is full of good intentions but at the heart of it, it renders the judiciary practically equal to employees working regular overtime. Aspects of the agreement could have been announced without any need for the pay revision.
Take, for instance, the retirement age, which will now rise from 65 to 68. Why that was not implemented years ago is a mystery.It would have kept in situ judges of the calibre of Philip Sciberras, Joe Galea Debono and Franco Depasquale, among others.
But the government, in spite of urgings from all quarters, including the judiciary itself, took no action. It is good that action is being taken now, and it might even have been bolder. Why at 68 and not 70? Demographic observations in relation to the revision of pensionable age resting on longevity apply also in this case.
Raising the retiring age is not merely for the benefit of judges, to save them the indignity of having to return to lawyers’ work or assist in the legal office of relatives or friends. It benefits justice and society. So much accumulated experience has been lost and will be lost even at 68. Why waste when experience and acquired wisdom are so acute requirements?
One reason, not said out loud but obvious enough, is that raising the retirement age blocks openings and might retain in office some weak-achievers. That is not a good enough reason. It is weak in itself. It also ignores the fact that there are not many aspirants of quality jealously eyeing a seat on the bench. The fact is that for one reason or another the gravitas and dignity that used to apply to appointments to the bench has diminished quite dramatically. There are no queues of panting expectants.
Also, having the judiciary for a longer legal lifetime would allow a number of lawyers to mature, both in their calibre and in their earning requirements. Even with the proposed revised salaries accepting elevation to the bench means a cut in income for reasonably established lawyers.
If they have had a chance to maximise their earnings before being considered for appointment, so much the better.
The increase in remuneration is in itself a matter of potential controversy. For one thing, it is not adequate, especially since 35 per cent of it will be paid in income tax. For another, it can never be adequate – the government has relativities to consider.
In fact, it is a wonder and a sign of respect for the judiciary that trade unions have not started howling already. There are myriad cases of underpaid posts, starting with the head of the civil service. They will rightly expect objective – not special – consideration.
There is also the little matter of the civil service collective agreement. It should have been renegotiated and brought into effect over a year ago. But the Budget for 2012 said nothing about that. Nor was any hint given in the pre-2013Budget document.
Instead, the government seems to be acting politically and in a piecemeal manner. It gave a tit-bit to the police, not an increase in pensionable pay, but a one-off bonus which leaves them waiting for a mountain of arrears to be paid to them, and for a reasonable revision in their salary scales.
Now we have more tit-bits for the judiciary. They will be – realistically or notionally, time will tell – expected to work in the afternoon. No indication of the extended hours was given, nor was any reference made to what the practice will be in the summer months. The main idea seems to have been to placate their recent quietly exhibited anger over pay scales.
If things are taken at face value, the judiciary are not being paid more than it is already receiving. It will be paid more for working more.
The judiciary are free to absorb the situation in dignified silence. Others have spoken out about the arrangement. Lawyers, it seems, were not consulted about the radical change – if radical it shall actually be – in the courts’ working hours. It is obvious that they ought to have been consulted.
Court action is only the end of a process. It starts with lawyers seeing their clients, hearing them out properly, and preparing the best possible cases for them.
At present, lawyers do that from the afternoon into early evening. Now they will have to work into early night. A proposal was made that instead of afternoons, the courts should operate on a normal five-day week basis, meaning that they also work Mondays and Fridays. It was news to me that members of the judiciary, though not all of them, work on that basis. The explanation given to me was that they use those days to consider and prepare judgments.
Understandable. But rather than cause an upheaval, can’t more workable arrangements be considered? For instance, can the courts work in full Mondays to Fridays, from 8.30 a.m. to around 1 p.m.? That would allow good time for court cases to be heard, in an organised manner, and leave time for the judiciary to its off-bench work and for lawyers to cover their clients’ requirements.
It is definitely high time that we get a better working and more effective courts system. The proposed reforms do not get us there. Not quite.