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Judges ask for 13.6 per cent pay hike$265,000 salary necessary to bring earnings on par with other jurisdictions, lawyer argues
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 29, 2012
If approved, the four judges of the territorial court of the NWT will earn $265,000 annually - a $31,745 increase to their current salary, beginning April 1.
In addition to the initial 13.6 per cent increase, territorial judges Chief Judge Robert Gorin, Bernadette Schmaltz, Christine Gagnon, and Garth Malakoe could receive an annual increase tied to the consumer price index in Yellowknife each year until April 1, 2016. Gorin and Malakoe were present at the hearing but Gagnon and Schmaltz were not.
Glenn Tait, a lawyer speaking on the judges' behalf, told the NWT's judicial remuneration commission that there has been a "gradual erosion" of parity in the salaries of territorial court judges compared to judges in other provincial and territorial jurisdictions in recent years.
Territorial court judges were the second highest paid out of any jurisdiction in 2000 but since then, judges' pay in the NWT has dropped to fifth place - behind Ontario ($262,113), Alberta ($257,550), Yukon ($242,819), and Saskatchewan ($238,943).
The $265,000 salary would be "a restorative increase to where the wage should properly be," based on the cost of living and the rates that other judges make in other jurisdictions, said Tait. An increase was substantiated, he argued, partly due to the consumer price index increase of four per cent, announced Jan. 11, which he called "the highest of any jurisdiction."
The judges have been receiving annual pay increases of $6,000 a year since 2007.
Tait dismissed territorial government arguments for fiscal restraint, stating in his submission that allowing the GNWT to determine judges' salaries "would strike at the very heart of judicial independence."
"The fiscal situation of the government is not a relevant factor for this commission to be looking at," Tait told the commission.
It also wasn't fair to equate the judges' negotiations for salary increases with those made for unionized GNWT employees because judges cannot bargain collectively, he said.
The GNWT and the Union of Northern Workers are in the midst of contract negotiations for a new collective agreement. The GNWT is offering workers a 0.25 per cent pay increase per year for the first two years, followed by one per cent in the third year and 1.25 per cent in the fourth year. The union is asking for a three-year agreement with a 3.25 per cent raise each year.
The territorial government is proposing the judges' $6,000 yearly increases continue, adding up to $24,000 or 10.3 per cent over four years.
"Judges are paid above the national average for (provincial and territorial) court judges and we would suggest that this places them among the better remunerated judges in Canada," said GNWT lawyer Glen Rutland.
Rutland also suggested workload for territorial court judges has decreased in recent years, particularly as it had to do with circuit travel, which he said the government partly addressed in the 2008-09 fiscal year with the appointment of a fourth judge. There has been a slight decrease in the number of sitting days outside of Yellowknife, he noted.
"We would suggest that the addition of a fourth judge has brought down the average number of days per judge per circuit to the point where it is now the same as the number of days in Yellowknife," he said.
Rutland added the economic conditions in the NWT did not justify a 13.6 per cent pay hike, citing a financial statement by Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger last December, indicating only a "modest recovery" for the territory following the worldwide economic recession that began in 2008.
The commission, made up of chair David Gilday, Dave McPherson, and Gerry Avery, kept their questions brief, although McPherson asked Tait if he thought there might be a problem with the "public perception" of a 13.6 per cent salary increases for judges, given many people in the territory were "taking a cut."
"I don't think everyone is taking a cut and certainly not everyone in this territory," said Tait. "In B.C. or Ontario, yes, but nobody in this territory."
The commission had 120 days to make a decision on pay for territorial court judges after Jan. 1.