Committee recommends a modest salary increase for Quebec judges

Days before the Quebec government enacted a contentious back-to-work legislation to end an acrimonious labour standoff with its Crown prosecutors and government lawyers, a judicial compensation committee released an inconspicuous report that will likely once again test the government’s rapport with the principle players of the legal system.

A five-member blue-ribbon panel of legal and financial experts established under the Courts of Justice Act (Act) recommended handing Court of Quebec judges, municipal judges and justices of the peace a modest hike in their remuneration package, but it would be surprising if the provincial government embraces the recommendations, given past history.

Since 1998, there have been four judicial compensation committees (excluding the latest one), and the government almost always contested the recommendations, points out André Gauthier, who represented the Conférence des juges municipaux du Québec which represents judges of municipal courts outside Laval, Montreal and Quebec City. In almost every case, judges have had to launch legal proceedings to compel the provincial government to adhere to recommendations made by the independent committee.

“The government cannot do what it wants as the Supreme Court of Canada laid out the framework that must be followed,” noted Gauthier of Cain Lamarre Casgrain Wells LLP in Montreal. “But since 1998, the government has generally not taken into account recommendations by various judicial compensation committees. We’ve had to go before the courts. These are the reasons that explain why I am not optimistic.”

Headed by Alban d’Amours, the former head of Quebec’s largest financial institution, the Mouvement Desjardins, the committee tabled a report before the National Assembly recommending a 5.05 per cent salary increase over a three year period for Court of Quebec judges, from the current $221,270 to $232,443 by July 2012. It also recommended that as of January 2012 changes be made to the insurance plans of Court of Quebec judges, which would increase premiums drawn from their annual salaries from 1.07 per cent to 1.81 per cent. The committee examines every three years issues such as remuneration, pension packages and benefits of provincially-appointed judges.

The government, pleading fiscal restraint, argued that Court of Quebec judges should receive a 2.25 per cent increase over three years, in line with what Quebec’s 450,000 public sector workers received last June during contract negotiations.

The d’Amours committee partly bought into the government’s reasoning. After taking into consideration factors such as judges’ responsibilities, the need to attract “outstanding candidates,” the cost of living index, the economic situation prevailing in the province, trends in real per capita income in Quebec, the state of public finances and the remuneration paid to other judges exercising a similar jurisdiction in Canada, the d’Amours committee determined that fiscal restraint is a factor that must be taken into consideration when examining the remuneration of judges.

“The committee considers that the remuneration of judges cannot escape the constraints that is imposed by the state of public finances and the economic forecasts of the next three years,” said d’Amours in his 128-page report.

All of which prompted Chantal Chatelain, who represented Court of Quebec judges before the d’Amours committee, to observe that “there never seems to be a good time to discuss salary increases, in Quebec or elsewhere. All public administrations plead fiscal constraint.”

The modest hike would still make Court of Quebec judges among the best paid judges in the country. Only Superior Court judges who earn $271,400, Ontario provincial court judges who make $252,274 and British Columbia provincial court judges who gross $231,138 make more than Court of Quebec judges.

The salaries of the 270 judges of the Court of Quebec have nearly doubled since 1997, from $113,492 to $221,270 in 2009, after a landmark decision on judicial independence by the Supreme Court of Canada in Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3. Court of Quebec judges also successfully argued before other judicial compensation committees that salary hikes would help attract candidates from the private sector and that the court is without equal in the rest of Canada, with a jurisdiction more akin to a Superior Court than any other provincial court. The Court of Québec, whose judges are appointed by the government of Quebec, is a court of first instance that has jurisdiction in civil, criminal and penal matters as well as in matters relating to youth. It also has jurisdiction over administrative matters or appeals, where this is provided for by law.

“If it wasn’t for the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, I believe judges would be in the same situation as Quebec Crown prosecutors and government lawyers,” said Gauthier, who received four years ago the Medaille du Barreau, the highest distinction a Quebec lawyer can earn.

The committee also recommended reimbursing part of the legal fees incurred by the Conférence des juges du Québec, which represents the Court of Quebec judges, while pleading its case. The Conférence argued that the government should put in place a permanent mechanism, either through a government decree, regulation or by legislation, that would compel the government to refund its legal expenses in lieu of being at the mercy of the committee’s recommendations. The committee instead recommended that the government reimburse 12 per cent, or $60,000, of the $485,000 legal tab the Conférence incurred to present its case before the judicial compensation committee.

“It is just, equitable and reasonable that judges be able to receive financial support, in part or in whole, to present their positions,” maintained Chatelain. “The judges have no means of pressure. They are bound by a constitutional framework to present their positions.”

Aside from proposing a salary increase for Court of Quebec judges, the committee also recommended a salary hike of 3.3 per cent over three years for municipal court judges, from the current $191,507 to $197,889 by July 2012, and a 10.1 per cent increase for presiding justices of the peace, from the current $110,000 to $121,091 by July 2012.

The committee also laid bare the “difficulties” it experienced in executing its mandate. It castigated the provincial government for belatedly appointing members of the committee, which proved to be a “source of inefficiency and discontent” as it gave the committee barely six months to fulfil its mandate.

“The committee did not have the time to meet with all the parties to put in place mechanisms that would ensure the efficacy and smoothness of its work.”

Under the Act, the government has 30 days to approve, amend or reject some or all of the committee’s recommendations, by way of a resolution.