Northern Ireland news

Report into High Court judge `recruitment crisis' reveals senior lawyers choosing larger pay packets and skiing holidays over `sense of duty'

David Alister Scoffield QC; Stephen James Shaw QC; Michael Robert Humphreys QC; Danny Friedman QC; Karen Quinlivan QC and Gerald Eric John Simpson QC were sworn into office before Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland

A new report into the `recruitment crisis' for High Court judges reveals senior lawyers are choosing larger pay packets and skiing holidays over `a sense of duty', Bimpe Archer reports.

FAILURE to fill the High Court's statutory requirement for 10 judges is "little short of disastrous", according to their own professional association.

A competition for a vacant post in 2019 saw the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Committee (NIJAC) "unable to make an appointment from those who applied for it" and following a retirement there are now two vacancies on the bench.

At the end of January, seven senior barristers - including attorney general John Larkin - were appointed `Temporary High Court Judges' in a bid to help clear the backlog at High and Crown courts.

Queen's University law professors Brice Dickson and John Morison and colleague Andrew Godden interviewed 18 serving or retired judges (including seven serving High Court judges), 12 solicitors, eight barristers (all QCs), six salaried judges working in tribunals, and six lawyers employed in government legal services about the "recruitment crisis".

Among the startling findings of the report obtained by the Irish News is the blunt admission by top lawyers that it simply does not pay to apply for what in the past was regarded as a promotion, with "considerable rewards still available to barristers and solicitors through non-publicly funded work".

"As far as solicitors are concerned, the head of the Belfast branch of an international firm asked us rhetorically why he or she would want to take a 50 per cent pay cut in order to become a High Court judge," the authors said.

"It seems clear, certainly, that in Northern Ireland there is a cadre of high-earning lawyers who, at present, are not likely to be interested in applying to become a High Court judge because they would be significantly better off financially if they stayed in their current job."

One QC said simply: "I just wouldn’t be interested in the job."

A High Court judge in Northern Ireland earns £192,000, however a review board recommended in 2018 that this be raised to £240,000.

For most solicitors a judicial salary is "often close enough to what would be received in private practice", with Public Prosecution Service and Crown Solicitors Office lawyers "earning much less" than a judge.

But one judge said: "In the past the bench was seen as an escape from the unrelenting pressure of work, one case after another... now the vast majority [of barristers] have a much better work/life balance... [For me] there was no question of taking time off to go skiing... now you can organise your cases... you can still have a decent life".

A senior barrister explained as a judge "I am going to have to come in every day of the week. I am going to have a boss... who will tell me where I have to go and what cases I have to hear... and my holidays are going to be cut back... and all this for a cut in pay".

Interviewees said of the volume of work is much greater than 20 years ago, with Troubles legacy cases (inquests, compensation claims and judicial reviews of police) and historic sex abuse cases "seen as particularly difficult and unattractive".

One judge "spoke eloquently about the difficulties he has had as an older person in going back into the past to revisit former times in order to try to apply modern standards to old cases".

What had been seen as "the compensations of the status... including the knighthood or damehood" are no longer as desirable.

Meanwhile, "the increasingly specialist world of legal practice" is putting some off, with one solicitor saying: "I am a criminal lawyer, what do I know about Chancery cases?"

There report found complaints that NIJAC selection committees "were more impressed by examples of senior counsel's opinions than by, say, a judgment issued by a County Court judge or academic material (even in book form) submitted by a lawyer in public service".

One County Court judge said "the nature of their work was not suitable for producing polished judgments which might impress a selection panel", unless they were to "write up a `vanity judgment' with a view to advancing themselves".

Government lawyers complained documents they have written "are not theirs to share (but) owned by the parties to the cases".

County Court judges say their judicial experience "is not given sufficient consideration", despite being "knowledgeable about and practised in... (keeping) cases running efficiently through the court".

No County Court judge had made it to the High Court in Northern Ireland since the new NIJAC-run selection system began in 2005

The report found "a prevalent view among some barristers and a small number of serving High Court judges that, to be blunt about it, County Court judges would not be intellectually up to the task".

This is dismissed as "absolute tripe" by one such judge.

Barristers agreed they could have "a distinct advantage" if the judges on the selection committee were "very familiar with his or her work", with some already "identified" as potential future High Court judges in a way which does not apply to applicants from other pools, such as solicitors, lawyers in public service or even existing County Court judges".

One judge lamented the `tap on the shoulder' recruitment scheme of the past had carried with it "a sense that it was your duty to do it... to put something back into the profession . . . and that seems to have gone now... it is a job".

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