Patrick O’Brien: Judicial Independence and the Irish Referendum on Judicial Pay

If all goes to plan, this week the wording of a new amendment to the Irish Constitution will be finalised. The amendment is designed to permit reductions to the pay of judges and will be voted on in a referendum on 27th October. The reason for the amendment is well known: the Irish government has no money. In the midst of a general financial crisis, the pay of other state employees has been significantly reduced through levies. Thus far judges have been exempt because of Article 35.5 of the Constitution, which is unambiguous: ‘The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office.’ The exemption of judges from a general pay cut was never going to be politically palatable and so a halfway house solution was arrived at two years ago a scheme was set up whereby judges could voluntarily forego a portion of their salary in line with the cuts to salaries of other public servants. Uptake of this scheme was, not surprisingly, quite slow although by January of this year a significant majority (125 out of 147 judges http://www.rte.ie/news/2011/0106/judges.html) had signed up to the scheme. When it came into office earlier this year, the new government promised to proceed with a referendum to facilitate formal reductions to judges’ pay. This pledge was popular and the amendment is virtually certain to be approved in the referendum.

The core of the new provision (assuming no further amendments) will be Article 35.5.3:

“Where, before or after the enactment into law of this section, reductions have been or are made by law to the remuneration of persons belonging to classes of persons whose remuneration is paid out of public money and such law states that those reductions are in the public interest, provision may also be made by law to make reductions to the remuneration of judges.”

If passed, the government proposes to reduce the salary of senior judges by 31%. The judiciary are, by all accounts, unhappy about this proposal and let this be known by a memorandum released in July (much to the annoyance of the Minister for Justice, who insisted that it be removed from the Court Service website – an interesting incident for what it suggests about relations between politicians and judges). The judges’ document, available here: http://www.irishtimes.com/focus/2011/judicialpay/index.pdf, was at pains to point out that the judges did not oppose a pay cut as such, but pointed (amongst other things) to the threat to judicial independence created by the possibility of a reduction to judicial pay.

From the way the new Article 35.5.3 is constructed we can surmise that the drafters are trying to manage a difficult juggling act. They want on the one hand to achieve a legitimate mechanism by which reductions in judicial remuneration may be achieved. On the other hand, they want to avoid the challenge to judicial independence that arises if judges’ remuneration can be used as a means of influencing their decision-making. This is a sensible way to approach the problem. If judicial independence is about anything at its core, it is about protecting judges from the kind of very personal worries – around personal pay and conditions, threats to the person and to family, etc – that might create a risk that they would be afraid to make unpopular decisions.

The drafters’ chosen solution is that a reduction in judicial pay must be coupled to a reduction in public sector pay more generally done ‘in the public interest’. Unfortunately because the wording of Article 35.5.3 is rather loose it is not clear that this is what it actually does. The phrase ‘persons belonging to classes of persons whose remuneration is paid out of public money’ seems unnecessarily vague and obtuse. It could mean almost anything. The putative ‘public interest’ test is also too vague. One would hope that most actions taken by the state should be done in the public interest, but the ‘public interest’ concerns that apply to reducing the pay of a civil servant, for example, are not likely to be the same kind of public interest concerns that apply to a judge. Yet as the wording stands it seems that it is the former standard that must be engaged when reducing the pay of judges.

What else could have been done? Three suggestions:

  1. Nothing. In the O’Byrne case ([1959] IR 1) the Supreme Court applied a purposive interpretation to the meaning of Article 35.5, concluding that a requirement that judges pay income tax was not an attack on judicial independence. It might have been something of a stretch for a court that has become more literalist in recent decades, but it could reasonably be argued that a general reduction in the pay of everyone (not just judges) in emergency conditions is not a reduction to the pay of a judge for the purposes of Article 35.5.
  2. A ‘One-Shot’ amendment. The amendment could simply provide for a once-off reduction to judicial pay, leaving the existing Article 35.5 in place.
  3. Just Word it Better. Why not simply state that judges are not exempt from general pay cuts affecting all public servants but nor may they be specially selected for pay cuts, either individidually or as a group? Why not create an independent means for determining what judicial pay should be?

As it stands, the amendment is a classic example of hard cases making bad law. The new Article 35.5 closely addresses a very specific situation but has uncertain application outside of it. It is a shame that a threat to judicial independence in Ireland, even a minor one, should be created just because of bad drafting.

Patrick O’Brien is a Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, University College London. 

4 Comments

Filed under Judiciary

4 responses to “Patrick O’Brien: Judicial Independence and the Irish Referendum on Judicial Pay

  1. Pingback: Verfassungsblog › Finanzkrise und Gewaltenteilung

  2. Aileen McHarg

    I happened to be reading an article by Robert Stevens on judicial independence this morning, and there is a brief discussion of a nice British parallel to this from the depression in the 1930s – (1999) 19 OJLS 365 at 391-2.

  3. I agree with your points that pay cut matter of judges could have been taken in a more appropriate manner than power play style.

  4. Pingback: Shadow constitutional convention #8: O’Brien on the Judiciary - Human Rights in Ireland

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