Some may feel resentful that we have unelected official who appeared to be generously paid and difficult to remove, but there are good reasons why the salaries of judges and magistrates are higher than those of many other public sector employees.
Newspapers and other media outlets often criticise judicial decisions, especially if they feel that the penalties imposed are too lenient. They will often, within the same articles, move onto the question of whether magistrates and judges should be paid so much and remain so unaccountable for their decisions.
The question about accountability is one thing, and all of us should be aware that there are certainly avenues of complaint against judicial officers, including complaints to the Judicial Commission – not to mention the appeals process.
But what about pay rates?
The salaries of magistrates and judges are currently decided by an independent commission, not by Parliament.
With a secured position and tenure, judicial officers can focus on dealing with each case on its merits – and making decisions impartially and unhindered by financial concerns, political pressures and the need to remain popular in the eyes of the media and the community.
A secured salary for judicial officers dates back centuries.
There is a strong argument that a shift to Parliament-controlled judicial incomes could have negative repercussions.
For example, as NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst notes, those who might seek to challenge a government decision could feel that there is a conflict of interest in a judge overseeing a case where they must decide between their employer and someone who is taking their employer to court.
This could lead to a perception of bias and further criticism of the judiciary.
Parliament-controlled incomes could also lead to a perception that magistrates and judges could be ‘bought’ by government through promises of judicial pay rises.
So how much do judges and magistrates earn?
District Court judges, whose salaries are relative to Supreme Court judges, earn a salary of about $360,000, while magistrates get just under $290,000.
The NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst’s salary is $450,750 plus a conveyance allowance of $22,550. High Court judges earn more than this.
While this figure is hardly a modest sum to the average Australian, it was actually a substantial pay cut for Justice Bathurst, who used to be a barrister before joining the bench.
Since the vast majority of judges come from within the ranks of senior barristers, it is actually typical that they will make a financial sacrifice by accepting a judicial position.
Having said that, the generous superannuation package offered to judicial offers goes some way may be the only way to evening out the impact.
Attracting talent is important in any industry or profession. And without any financial incentive, it is likely that roles may attract a lower caliber of applicants.
Another argument in favour of high pay rates is that, in countries where judges are not paid well, the temptation for bribery may arise. That is not to say that members of our judiciary would likely be prone to accepting bribes, but isn’t it best to pay magistrates and judges well to minimise any such temptation?
Some say that magistrates and judges should be paid in accordance with performance and/or output.
But judicial officers already have a high workload, way beyond the hours they are actually sitting in court.
Trials also now take much longer than they did decades ago.
Back in the 1970s, a ‘long’ trial was one that lasted more than four days. Today, this is completely different, with trials lasting months, even years.
The role of the magistrates in the Local Court may significantly vary from day to day.
They may have to work through a list of 50 cases on a Monday, then have a single defended hearing that runs for the rest of the week.
And since defendants are often unrepresented, a magistrate in a defended hearing will need to make sure they are treated fairly in court, while unable to actually give advice.
This can be extremely testing and difficult in many cases.
In higher courts, judges must spend hours and even days writing judgments, some of which will be pored over and analysed by academics and picked-at and dramatized by the media.
So while judges and magistrates do earn far more than the average Australian, there are very good reasons why this should be the case.
What do you think: are these reasons convincing enough, or should judges have a more modest paycheque?