Compared to their provincial and territorial counterparts, judges in the NWT are among the highest paid in Canada.
They’re pushing to keep it that way.
Along with proposed tweaks to benefits plans, territorial judges, who earned just shy of $300,000 last year, are asking for a pay raise from the territorial government.
Every four years, the Judicial Remuneration Commission, a three-member panel established as an independent oversight body meant to uphold judicial independence, plays mediator between the two parties. The commission, acting as a bipartisan buffer between judges and the GNWT, hears submissions from both sides related to salaries, benefits, pensions, vacation time and more.
There are currently four full-time judges sitting in territorial court — all of whom reside in the capital — including Chief Judge Robert Gorin.
At a public hearing held at the Explorer Hotel Monday, territorial judges, represented by lawyer Susan Dawes, argued their annual salary of $299,869 should be raised to $310,000 effective April 1 — a 3.4 per cent increase from what they’re currently earning.
On the same date for every subsequent year until 2024, judges’ annual salary should increase by a percentage equal to the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Yellowknife over the preceding year, Dawes, accompanied by Gorin, told the commission.
Being a territorial judge is a tough, demanding job with unique challenges not seen in other jurisdictions, and judges’ salaries ought to reflect that, say territorial judges. The commission, which makes recommendations to the minister of justice following each hearing, is bound to weigh a myriad of factors before crafting its report — from the NWT’s economic forecast to the salaries earned by judges across the country.
Citing the commission’s 2016 report — it stated territorial judges exercised among the broadest, if not the broadest, jurisdiction in Canada — judges say the panel should take into account the daunting demands and wide scope of the job.
In the NWT, territorial judges are tasked with overseeing cases that come before a number of courts within their purview. Criminal, civil, regulatory, family and bylaw matters are all heard by territorial judges. The territory has routinely ranked first for the highest crime rate in Canada, and 90 to 95 per cent of all adult criminal prosecutions in the NWT are tried in territorial court, conditions that saddle territorial judges with a significant workload compared to their counterparts across the country, they say.
Judges say they should be compensated adequately for the unique travel requirements that come with the role — they frequently fly to remote communities to preside over cases, a physically and socially taxing part of the job.
Salaries should swell to keep pace with the NWT’s rate of inflation and changes in Yellowknife’s CPI, argue territorial judges. The capital’s cost of living, pegged among the highest in the country, should also be considered by the commission, submit territorial judges.
They argue their wages should be adjusted to mirror the high earnings enjoyed by professionals in the NWT.
The GNWT says judges are already making enough money.
“The salary currently stipulated is not only adequate but also appropriate,” states the GNWT in a written submission.
The government, rejecting the lump sum salary increase proposed by territorial judges in the first year of the commission’s four-year mandate, is offering pay increases of 0.5 per cent for 2020/2021, followed by an increase of 1.5 per cent for 2022/2023 and 2023/2024.
The GNWT says the jurisdiction territorial judges operate in, while vast and demanding, isn’t much different from what territorial and provincial judges in other areas face. Challenges experienced by judges with respect to working conditions are mostly “subjective,” and their wages – ranking from third to fifth highest in Canada – have consistently outpaced inflation and the earnings of other employees paid by the public purse, argues the GNWT.
Plus, the territorial government says the economic outlook for the territory is gloomy at best: population growth is stagnant, the diamond mining industry is fading – two mines are expected to reach the end of their production lifespans by 2028 – and future resource projects are speculative at best.
If the commission were to recommend the judges’ proposed pay hike, judges would stand to earn around $329,300 by 2023/2024. That would make territorial judges the fourth highest earners only behind their counterparts in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, says the GNWT.
Territorial judges say the government’s ability to pay them more shouldn’t be tied to their warranted request for a wage raise. They admit long-term economic forecasts aren’t exactly sunny, but say modest gains are expected between 2020 and 2024, citing a February 2019 budget address which predicted the resource sector will “continue to perform reasonably well over the next five to 10 years.”
Territorial judges are also seeking changes to the benefits they receive. Among other requests, judges want long-term disability benefits extended from age 65 – the current cutoff – to when a judge is due to receive their pension.
The government is resisting that request, too, claiming such changes to current benefits plans would leave the GNWT vulnerable to significant losses.
In contrast to the proposed salary increases for judges on the table from both parties, a five-year deal struck last year between the GNWT and Union of Northern Workers-represented government employees – a last minute agreement that pulled the territory back from the brink of what would have been a crippling NWT-wide strike – calls for no salary increases for the first two years, followed by a 1.6 per cent increase in the third year, backdated to April 1, 2018. Years four and five will give the GNWT’s approximately 3,800 unionized workers salary increases of 2.3 per cent and 2.5 per cent, respectively.