Tuesday, September 29, 2009

State has few options in face of judges’ strike

By Thomas Escritt
Published: September 28 2009
The Financial Times

When Romania’s government announced a package of pay reforms to cut public sector wages, nobody was surprised when employees threatened industrial action.But it still came as a shock when the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the professional organisation and regulatory body that represents Romania’s judges actually followed up on its threat after securing for themselves legal rulings that they were entitled to a pay rise.

Most experts regard the strike, which began on September 1, as illegal, but with the courts not sitting, there is little chance of a ruling.Laura Stefan, a legal affairs expert at the Romanian Academic Society, a thinktank, says: “If the police strike, then the courts can rule that it’s illegal. There’s nobody to rule on the illegality of the judges’ strike.”Since the strike began, most judges have refused to preside over low-priority cases that do not involve minors or arrests.The judges are striking over the effects of a public sector pay law introduced to deal with the hole in Romania’s public sector finances.

The government is seeking to implement this law with the encouragement of the multilateral lenders behind a €20bn bail-out package it signed last year.The unitary public sector pay law will tie all public employees to a wage scale defined in terms of multiples of a base salary of 700 Romanian lei (€165) a month. The scale tops out with the president’s salary, at 12 times the base wage.“It’s a blunt instrument,” admits one official involved in the bail-out package, “but with elections coming up it’s no use just warning the government to cut wages.

If the government makes a soft commitment, then nothing will happen.”But the case of the country’s judges is particularly sensitive. For years, Romania has been under pressure from the European Union to improve the quality of its judicial system in the fight against corruption.Successive governments have strengthened the judiciary, increasing its independence from the justice ministry and raising the pay of judges and prosecutors to the point where they are among the best-paid public employees.

Currently, a starting judge earns some €600 a month – comparable to the pay of a senior emergency doctor, and more than a university professor.Until 2000, judges also participated in a scheme under which public employees received salary top-ups to compensate for burdens specific to their jobs. Under the scheme, officials required to respect confidentiality as part of their work were entitled to a specific bonus, as were those whose job involved particular levels of stress. Until recently, even using a computer as part of a job merited a specific top-up.

The bonuses, which were introduced during the 1990s as private sector pay began to outstrip that of public employees, have contributed to significant public sector wage inflation – the public wage bill grew 86 per cent over the past three years.Since 2000, when top-ups for judges were abolished as their salaries began to outstrip those of the rest of the public sector, individual judges have sought rulings from their colleagues saying that their exclusion from the bonus system amounted to discrimination.

Collectively, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, with the support of the judges of the country’s Supreme Court, are demanding back-payment of the salaries in full.Catalin Predoiu, the justice minister, has pledged that the back-payment claims will be met, though not immediately.Payment of the judges’ claims in full would cost about €3m, at a time when the government is forecasting a budget deficit of 7.2 per cent for this year against a backdrop of an economy that could shrink by as much as 10 per cent.

Matters are complicated by the fact that the most senior judges, those on the Supreme Court and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, have already had their claims met, since their budget comes directly from the finance ministry and not from the embattled justice ministry.As Ms Stefan says: “We have a situation where the best-paid judges are getting all they ask for, while the lowest-paid are getting nothing.”Lidia Barbulescu, the president of the supreme court, says that the spectacle of judges ruling on their own compensation levels only creates the “appearance” of a conflict of interest. “Judges didn’t rule on their own situation personally. We tried to solve this misunderstanding in a decent manner.”

She argues that the judiciary needs to be given independent control over its own budget to avoid similar conflicts in the future.The judges’ unique position in society leaves the government with few tools at its disposal to resolve the conflict.Mr Predoiu says: “All we can do at the ministry of justice is talk to them, show them our arguments. All the powers share responsibility for the good functioning of the state. The top of the legal profession has to understand our needs as well as those of the judicial system.”

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