With members of the judiciary the target of spiteful press coverage just weeks ago following the Brexit High Court ruling, the latest move by government to gift judges a pay rise of 12 to 15% will likely stir tensions further.
In a move stoking anger amongst other public service bodies and trade unions, the proposed rise, which has been approved by ministers, will gift 106 High Court judges with 12-15% on top of £179,768 a year. Set to take effect in April, the increase bumps judges’ pay up by between £21,572.16 and £26,965.20.
The boost in pay is intended to tackle a recruitment crisis and will cost taxpayers between about £2.5m and £3m more while the public sector faces an average 1% pay increase.
Funding cuts, however, have long put the judiciary’s status as a world leader under pressure as it has increasingly concerned the profession that the best practitioners will no longer be attracted to a career on the bench.
The Judicial Application Commission’s (JAC’s) recent statistics show a worrying decline in applicants.
In its first selection exercise for High Court judges, in 2006/07, the JAC had 144 applicants. In a similar selection exercise carried out in 2013/14, the number of applicants halved.
The latest selection exercise was carried out in 2015, where 15 High Court judge vacancies were advertised. The statistics for this round of appointments will not be published until June 2017 but it is understood the number of applicants fell again, and of those that did apply, there were not enough quality candidates to fill all 15 posts.
The current High Court salary of £179,768 a year has remained static while the average earnings of a top silk have rocketed. Alternative career paths, including becoming an arbitrator, have also opened up for successful silks who might otherwise have considered the bench. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) cost calculator, an average arbitrator’s fees for a £100m dispute are £175,000, rising to £285,000 for the most expensive arbitrators. In a recent Legal Business survey carried out to assess the current state of the judiciary, respondents felt the money on offer was now far too low.
When asked for a fair annual salary to attract and retain high-quality candidates to the High Court, nearly eight out of ten said salaries should be over £200,000, with nearly half arguing for upwards of £250,000.
Essex Court Chambers silk David Foxton QC, who was appointed a deputy High Court judge this year, told Legal Business: ‘Judges do work incredibly hard. The sort of person who becomes a judge is part someone who has always done that and validates their life by how hard they work. They are alpha types. Just as they were keen to be top of their rankings and leaders at the Bar, they’re now keen to have the same can-do attitude…so they’re nearly responsible for it themselves in that they always want to say yes and get things done.’
‘They obviously no doubt wish the government had been fairer on pensions and pay. But their professionalism and dedication remains very high. The infrastructure has been hit. You see it in the number of personnel available, the number of clerks available to man courts, having to print on double sided paper.’
For more in-depth analysis on the judiciary, see our Disputes Yearbook feature: Rack and ruin – the 2016 judicial survey