Hammer Price: What Your NWT Judges Are Paid

By 2019, territorial judges in the NWT could be earning more than $300,000 a year.

Why? Because a panel of three civilians says so.

Last week, justice minister Louis Sebert released the sharply titled Report of the Northwest Territories Judicial Remuneration Commission. It sounds truly mind-alteringly dull but it’s actually a treasure trove on two topics:

  • what you get for being a judge

  • how judges go about demanding more money for being a judge. Of all possible opponents to go up against in pay negotiations, you have to figure a bunch of judges are going to be pretty tricksy customers.

However, they don’t simply get unleashed on the territorial government to box everyone on the ears with long words. Instead, they have to convince three civilians who make up the aforementioned commission — since, in the name of judicial independence, the government and judges don’t directly negotiate. That means the GNWT also gets a shot at the commission with its own arguments.

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In a relatively predictable turn of events, the two sides have lined up thusly:

  • Judges: we would like more money and more vacation

  • GNWT: we would prefer not to give you either of those things

The report is the commission’s summary of how both sides tried to enlighten them regarding the one true path to fair pay for judges. We don’t get the original submissions, just the commission’s report with excerpts.

The judges’ point of view

First, some context.

Territorial judges entered this process earning $260,302 each per year. They got a northern allowance of $3,450 per year and vacation allowance ranging from 31.5 days (if you’ve been in the job for less than a decade) to 40 days (if you’ve been doing it for more than 20 years).

That salary is up from $197,814 in 2004 and $249,582 in 2012. The 2015 figure was (so says the GNWT) enough to give NWT judges the fifth-highest pay across Canada.

But territorial judges want more money. Why?

Well, the judges say they deal with not only criminal prosecutions but also all manner of cases regarding the environment, fisheries, wildlife and whatever else you can regulate. Somewhat worryingly, the judges say “the number of regulatory offences has increased considerably in recent years” so this is eating up their time.

The judges list a bunch of other commitments like youth justice, small claims and child protection. They claim that unlike other parts of Canada, the NWT’s judges need to know how to deal with absolutely all of these areas of law.

Not only that, the commission tells us the judges characterized their working conditions on the circuit — i.e. outside Yellowknife — as “onerous” (definition: “involving an amount of effort and difficulty that is oppressively burdensome”).

In other words, being a territorial judge is about as tough a gig as a judge can get. The commission, later, agrees with this assessment.

The judges finish by saying the territory is in nothing like as bad shape, financially, as its government is claiming. On the contrary, the judges seize on Conference Board of Canada forecasts projecting vast year-on-year GDP growth in the NWT: 8.4 percent in 2017, 8.7 percent in 2018 and 5.9 percent in 2019. As anyone who listened to the budget — both of you — will know, that’s nothing like the future the territory itself is anticipating.

On the government’s side

Right. That’s the judges done. Bottom half of the first inning: GNWT response.

The GNWT opens up by saying that the Conference Board of Canada economic forecast is utter pap. It uses slightly different words, but not by much: one of the words in the commission’s report is “bleak”.

To hammer the point home, the territorial government has GDP figures of its own. GDP is down 15 percent from its peak in 2007 and is still below its 2003 level, says the GNWT. Since 2003, judges’ salaries have increased by 42.3 percent.

As for the oppressively burdensome nature of being a judge, the territory casually remarks: “The addition of a fourth judge in 2009 has presumably reduced the amount of time on circuit for each individual judge.”

The GNWT also scoffs at the suggestion its judges are missing out financially. According to the commission, the territory’s response states “they are paid a northern allowance of $3,450 over and above their salaries — which is not shown in the figures in their submission on this point.”

Judges being economical with the full facts? Where on earth did they learn that trick? (The judges say they didn’t bother including it because some other jurisdictions also get a northern allowance. You be the, er, judge.)

Reams of this back-and-forthing follow, to the point where you imagine the three-person commission finding martial law increasingly attractive. Read the whole thing here if you want the blow-by-blow account.

Order in the court

The upshot is:

  1. The judges would like a pay increase to $284,000 in Year One, then pay rises each year in line with inflation

  2. The GNWT offers a “modest increase”

However, the GNWT then springs a surprise. In the next round of submissions, the territorial government lowers its pay offer!

The territory now wants no pay increase at all for judges. This intriguing negotiation tactic is attributed to “bleak circumstances” in the commission’s report.

The judges say it’s obvious why the GNWT offer has been lowered: collective bargaining with civil servants and teachers.

“It is well known that the GNWT is at the end of a number of four-year collective agreements and is about to enter negotiations with its public service employees,” say the judges.

“The only reasonable conclusion is that, since August, the Department of Justice has received its marching orders from the departments of Finance and Human Resources. Those orders: ask for a wage freeze for the judges because we are going to be trying to negotiate a wage freeze for the public service.”

The commission, however, notes that the judges “did not present any actual evidence to support this argument either in the written submissions or at the public hearing.” Which, for a group of judges (collective noun: gavel of judges? Bench of judges?) is a bit of a burn.

The GNWT categorically denied that collective bargaining was a factor.

At long last, we reach the commission’s decision. How much are we actually going to be paying these four judges until 2020?

The verdict: $272,000 this year, then annual increases of inflation plus two percent.

The commission says $284,000 in the first year, which the judges wanted, was “not appropriate” — but tacks on an above-inflation annual increase that wasn’t proposed by either party as a sort-of compromise.

If inflation projections in the report are accurate, this will see territorial court judges paid $304,491 per year by 2019-20. Under the judges’ proposed scheme that would have been around $306,000. The difference is not vast.

The commission did, however, entirely reject the judges’ bid for more vacation time. Those newbies will have to make do with 31.5 days, not a 40-day across-the-board policy the judges wanted.

Still, who knows what either side does if it’s not happy with this outcome. In a case involving judges, to whom does one appeal?

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