Mr. Speaker, the bill amends the Judges Act to implement the government's response to the recommendations made by the 1999 Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission. Among those recommendations is a retroactive salary increase of 11.2% for approximately 1,013 federally appointed judges. This would cost the federal government approximately $19 million.
The increase is retroactive to April 1, 2000, and would raise the base salary from $179,200 to $198,000 for judges who sit on appeal courts and superior courts in each province. The salaries for the chief justices in those courts would increase to $217,000 from $196,500. These same increases would also apply to federal court judges.
The judges on the Supreme Court of Canada would remain the highest paid. The eight regular judges would see an increase to $235,700 from $213,000, while the salary of the chief justice would rise to $254,000 from $230,200.
This is the fourth time the government has sought to amend the Judges Act. During the 35th parliament the government introduced Bill C-2 and Bill C-42, and during the 36th parliament, Bill C-37, all of which were relatively minor pieces of legislation.
In April 1998, Bill C-37 was introduced to establish the Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission. Bill C-37 also increased judges' salaries retroactively, providing an 8.3% pay increase over two years. This meant an average $13,000 pay increase for federal judges, with salaries increasing from $159,000 to over $172,000.
I would be hard pressed to think of any other public servant, or any hard-working Canadian for that matter, who received that kind of pay increase in 1998.
According to Statistics Canada, the consumer price index from 1996 to 1998 rose 2.55%. It is safe to assume that the salaries of most Canadians across the country would be affected by that statistic. Not only have the salaries of judges increased at a rate substantially higher than those of most Canadians, but their salaries are already indexed. I think that is important to remember.
No other senior public servant or any other lower level public employee has been given such a significant pay increase in the last number of years. While the government indicates that the raise is a reasonable one, it is interesting to note that senior public servants have received raises of no more than 5.7%.
It is not only public servants and other public employees who do not receive these types of extensive benefits. The very people who administer our justice system, the people on the ground who do the practical work in looking after the safety and security of Canadians first hand, seem to be ignored.
For example, in 1998, the same year that federal judges were given these generous salary increases, RCMP officers who had their salaries and wages frozen for five years were finally granted an increase of a mere 2% in March 1998, retroactive to January. If the concern is that judges receive these raises to ensure that there is no corruption of our justice system or any undue influence, is the same not true for the men and women who serve in our federal police forces?
A second pay increase was given to RCMP officers in April 1998 and later that year they received another small increase. However, over the five years that their salaries were frozen and in the next year, 1998, the RCMP received an increase of only 3.75%. These frontline officers are putting their lives on the line every day for Canadians, but the average three year constable received an increase of less than $2,000 over those years.
In contrast, the bill would provide an 11.2% increase to judges who are making well over $120,000 or $130,000 a year, some over $200,000 a year. There are so many other people within our justice system who are absolutely vital in ensuring that the system is functioning properly but are not getting the same kind of increase. These are often the same men and women who are forced to cope with the results of several years of cutbacks to the justice system.
One would assume that if money can be found to increase the salaries of judges, then money could also be found to give local police and RCMP the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.
Also, in many provinces crown attorneys do not have sufficient resources to prosecute the cases they are charged with. In this context I am especially thinking of the new legislation the government is bringing forward in respect of organized crime. While I support many of the principles, I wonder about the genuine attitude of the government in failing to provide adequately for the resources for frontline officers and frontline prosecutors to get the job done. There is no question that in the Canadian justice system there is a significant amount of delay and backlog, which needs to be remedied.
Another appalling situation in our country is the embarrassingly low wages paid to members of our armed forces. It is ridiculous that people who protect our nation, both at home and abroad, and put their lives at risk to ensure some measure of security for all Canadian citizens are fighting with antiquated equipment and are often forced to go to food banks to make ends meet. Now we hear that the minister is authorizing a raise in the rents that our armed forces have to pay. I do not think that is acceptable.
I understand from the government that the main rationale for this pay increase for judges is that the federal government must compete with high paying law firms to attract superior candidates to the bench. While I believe that a competitive salary is required to ensure good candidates, I do not believe that there has ever been any great shortage of candidates for the bench.
In such cities as Toronto and Vancouver, where a $200,000 plus yearly income for a lawyer may not be unusual, it is not outside the realm of possibility that such people may not be attracted to the bench for fear of a pay cut. However, in Manitoba, for example, I believe there would be no shortage of competent lawyers available for judicial appointments at $190,000 and, indeed, at perhaps even less considering the compensation packages and extra benefits that come with such appointments.
Perhaps that is a problem of the mandate of the commission and of the restrictions it had. Perhaps those regional differences should be reflected in salaries or expenses. The commission was operating at a bit of a disadvantage. It did not have the appropriate mandate to discuss those kinds of significant differences.
Many Canadians in the legal profession, no matter what their salary, would consider it a great honour to be appointed to a judgeship at any level. Over the past decade there have been an average of eight candidates for every opening on the bench. As I understand it, the eight candidates are previously screened for suitability. One assumes there would be at least one qualified applicant out of the eight. I have great respect for the legal profession. I believe there are many more than eight qualified candidates for one position.
The majority of my constituents, and most likely the majority of Canadians as a whole, would not consider a salary increase of almost 20% for federal judges over a three year period to be the best way to increase the quality of our justice system. We must ask ourselves how the government can justify giving federal judges a salary increase of 11.2% over and above the 8.2% increase they received in 1998.
The increase would in no way remedy the current backlog of federal court cases. That issue must be dealt with by the administration of the courts, the responsibility of which primarily lies with the judges. I have great confidence that the judges are capable of taking steps to ensure justice is dispensed in a timely fashion.
The pay increase would in no way help the thousands of front- line police officers who are at a severe disadvantage in their daily efforts to fight crime. I am not saying judges should not be well paid. They should be well paid and most Canadians would argue that they are. It is a question of whether they should be paid more than they are already.
My party has great reluctance in supporting the bill on the basis that it ignores the real problems of the Canadian justice system and the manner in which judges are appointed. That is another issue we could perhaps leave for another day.
The backlog of the courts would not be remedied by the bill. The appointment process, which many Canadians believe should be reformed to make the judiciary more independent and publicly accountable, would remain the same.
The administrators of the justice system, the provincial attorneys general, crown attorneys, police officers and members of the federal police force, the RCMP, would still be handcuffed by a lack of sufficient resources.
Perhaps nothing can be done with respect to the proposal in view of the structure and mandate of the commission and the constitutional obligations recently imposed upon parliament by the Supreme Court of Canada. However I urge all hon. members to consider a better way of dealing with the issue.