Sun | Sep 24, 2017

We’re not sitting on the BENCH - Low salaries, poor conditions cause many lawyers to reject serving as judges

Published:Sunday | May 22, 2016 | 5:00 AMBarbara Gayle
Chief Justice Zaila McCalla (left) chats with Justice Audre Lindo (right) and Justice Paulette Williams at the swearing-in ceremony for the judges for the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court last year. In the background is Justice Cresencia Brown-Beckford.

The deplorable conditions under which judges work, the inadequate salaries they are paid and the level of sacrifice they are called on to make are among the main reasons why qualified senior lawyers are refusing to serve on the Bench.

In a recent interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Dennis Morrison, president of the Court of Appeal, noted that there is a serious problem in attracting competent senior lawyers in private practice to the Bench.

"I will continue to encourage new people to come over to this side because they bring fresh perspectives and a level of diversity that is good for any institution," said Morrison, even as he admitted that the present judicial salaries and other terms and conditions of work make the Bench unattractive to senior lawyers.

"When you compare judicial salaries and emoluments in Jamaica with salaries across the region, the current level of pay here for judges does not compare favourably with most places.

"With a judicial life, you lose much of the freedom and flexibility that you have as a private practitioner," added Morrison, who left a successful private practice for the Bench because of what he described as "time for a change".

 

FACTORS

 

The factors highlighted by Morrison as the reasons senior lawyers do not want to make the transition to serve as judges were underscored by several members of the private Bar who spoke with our news team.

"It (being a judge) is the most difficult and thankless task to be performed in a court of law," said Queen's Counsel Howard Hamilton.

"Some persons are able to take to it naturally, but others will have greater difficulty. I know that it would give me the greatest challenge and, therefore, the nation should be grateful to all who take on this onerous undertaking," added Hamilton.

For fellow Queen's Counsel Patrick Foster, the low salary and the lack of serious benefits for judges make the job unattractive.

According to Foster, years ago, judges from other Caribbean countries sought jobs in Jamaica because of the salary, but this is no longer so as Jamaican judges are now paid far below judges in the other Caribbean countries.

"The poor conditions under which judges have to operate such as limited administrative and technical support and general poor conditions of work, are two main reasons I would not become a judge," said Foster.

In the meantime, attorney-at-law Bert Samuels said he has never seen himself as a judge. According to Samuels, he can help to shape the law from the private Bar, not as a judge.

"The lawyer is the buffer between the State and the citizen and I would not want to give up the opportunity to be that buffer," said Samuels, as he argued that Jamaican judges are overworked and not given sufficient time to write judgments.

"There is a fiscal component as to why some private practitioners don't go on the Bench," said attorney-at-law Christopher Townsend as he made a comparison between the earnings of lawyers and judges.

 

LIFESTYLE CHANGES

 

Townsend described the lifestyle changes one had to make to become a judge, and said many lawyers were not able to make that sacrifice.

He noted that a judge's life could be a lonely one as they cannot go to certain places and have to choose their friends carefully.

"It is a movie star lifestyle without the trappings and the compensation, and the entire public is your paparazzi," said Townsend.

Attorney-at-law Peter Champagnie echoed the position of Townsend.

"Judges are expected to conduct themselves in a particular manner that would not lend themselves to socialising at certain places," said Champaigne as he argued that a judge's social life is restricted while lawyers have the freedom to socialise at certain levels.

He noted that judges couldn't even socialise with lawyers who were their classmates because they did not want to give an appearance of favour or bias.

"It can be a very lonely job or a very lonely road for judges," said Champagnie, as he argued that the salaries paid to Jamaica judges are not the best and there is a need for more resources to be provided for them.

Attorney-at-law Melrose Reid said many of the experienced and qualified senior lawyers are not willing to go on the Bench as they have already made their name and are looking to tone down.

"Taking up a job on the Bench would be a new arena for them and the start of a new career path," said Reid.

"Lawyers 55 years old and over are saying how can I tone down my workload rather than to take up serious work, and work under conditions that are not favourable," added Reid, who also indicated that she is not interested in being a judge.

Morrison graduated from the Norman Manley Law School in 1975 and taught there before joining the law firm DunnCox in 1982. He remained there as partner until April 2008, when he was appointed as an appellate judge.

Appointed Queen's Counsel in 1994, he served on the Council of the Jamaican Bar Association for close to 30 years and did two terms as president between 1996 and 1999.

He has also served as a Judge of Appeal in Belize and the Cayman Islands.

barbara.gayle@gleanerjm.com