B.C.'s provincial court judges are suing Victoria for what they call the government's irrational and unreasonable refusal to increase their pay and benefits.
The Provincial Court Judges' Association of B.C. says in a lawsuit filed this week it shouldn't be affected by the government's "net zero" wage mandate because judges aren't public sector employees. That claim raised eyebrows inside some of B.C.'s most prominent unions, since judges are paid in public funds.
The B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit says a judges' commission delivered a compensation report to the provincial government last year.
This May, then-attorney general Barry Penner moved that the legislative assembly reject seven of the recommendations in that report. The lawsuit says the government felt it would be unreasonable to depart from its net-zero wage mandate. Under the two-year mandate, public sector unions can only negotiate wage increases if they cut costs elsewhere.
The legislative assembly rejected bumps in salary and benefits for the judges, as well as an increased pension accrual rate. The government noted provincial court judges saw their compensation rise from $161,250 in 2004 to $231,138 in 2010.
But the lawsuit says the Judicial Compensation Act allows for recommendations to only be rejected if the government can prove they're unfair. It accuses the government of failing to respond "in a meaningful way."
By utilizing the net-zero mandate, the lawsuit says, the government "fails to account for the fact that judges, although they must ultimately be paid from public funds, are not public sector employees, but rather an independent branch of government."
As of May 2010, B.C. had 111 full-time and 35 part-time provincial court judges. The court adjudicates almost all criminal charges, family law and child protection cases, and civil claims up to $25,000. Provincial court judges earn less than their Supreme Court counterparts.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Shirley Bond said she was not available for an interview and issued a statement on her behalf.
"It is unfortunate that the judges have chosen to litigate this matter," the statement read. "Government followed the process that has been established to respect judicial independence. After careful consideration, and in light of these challenging economic times, we tabled a detailed response in the legislature in May of this year that set out the government's rationale for rejecting the recommendations on judicial compensation. The resolutions that were presented to the legislature, including those dealing with judges' salaries and benefits, were supported by the house after an open, public debate in the legislature. This is a matter before the courts, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it in any detail."
Upon receiving the lawsuit, the province has three weeks to file its response.
Provincial Court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree declined comment.
Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, said his organization doesn't want to undercut the judges. However, he said if tens of thousands of his union members have had to negotiate under net zero, the judges should do the same.
"There has to be a set of rules that is the same for every one," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are, you still pay the same for bread."
B.C. Nurses' Union president Debra McPherson said the real issue is the net zero policy itself, since it interferes with free collective bargaining.
Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, said the lawsuit is not surprising because the province's rationale for rejecting the recommendations was not well reasoned.
"What's happened here is the government has simply tried to impose its policy that it's applied to other public sector employees on the judiciary," he said. Mr. Lakshman added that such a move could threaten the independence that's critical to judges.