By Thomas Escritt in Bucharest
Published: September 10 2009
The Financial Times
Romania’s judges vote on Thursday on whether to continue a strike demanding the payment of bonuses that they themselves have ruled they are entitled to.
The strike, which began at the beginning of this month, comes at a time when the government, faced with falling revenues, is trying to rein in spending and cut wage bills across the public sector as part of the terms of the €20bn bail-out deal it signed with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in March, and is a further blow to the reputation of a judicial system that has been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission for failing to meet EU standards.
Judges say that a system of bonuses, introduced in the 1990s, to compensate public sector workers for burdens such as having particularly stressful jobs, being required to keep confidentiality or being exposed to electro-magnetic radiation via using a computer, should also apply to them. The bonuses, which have contributed to the public wage bill growing 86 per cent over the past three years, were abolished in 2000 for judges, who are among the highest-paid of Romania’s public employees, with even relatively junior judges earning as much as senior hospital doctors.
Since then judges have individually obtained rulings from their colleagues saying that the abolition of the bonuses is a form of discrimination against them. Back-payment would cost the country, which faces a 7.3 per cent budget deficit and an economic contraction of more than 8 per cent this year, some €300m.
Catalin Predoiu, the justice minister, has pledged to make the payments over the next two years, and plans to raise judges’ basic salaries next year. Despite this, they threaten to continue the strike, during which judges are refusing to hear any cases apart from those involving arrests and minors, saying the bonuses have not been incorporated into the new pay scheme.
Laura Stefan, a legal affairs expert at the Romanian Academic Society, a thinktank, said: “It is illegal for magistrates to strike, as it is for the police. But if the police strike, then the courts can rule it illegal. If judges strike, then there’s nobody to acknowledge the strike’s illegality.”Mr Predoiu told the Financial Times: “The pillars of the state have to interact reasonably ... You can’t claim a position as one of the state powers, the judiciary, and then ignore the difficulties faced by the government, another state power.”
But magistrates argue they are seriously underfunded, lacking funds even to post summonses to plaintiffs. Lidia Barbulescu, vice-president of the Supreme Court, said: “Many courts are behind on payments for renting their premises,” adding the judicial system’s lack of resources was a “humiliation” for judges.