In defence of judicial holidays

3 Mar 2005

Judges are far from being a pampered lot, argues Sebastian De Brennan

THE ‘outrageous luxury’ of senior Australian judges receiving holidays of up to seven weeks has been much commented on recently. The NSW Opposition legal affairs spokesman, Andrew Tink, is among those who say that current judicial holiday arrangements are a waste of taxpayers’ money, and others have said that such arrangements are out of step with contemporary workplace practice. But is questionable whether this is an accurate assessment of the situation or simply the usual rhetoric aimed at securing political mileage.

For example, the media was quick to jump on the fact that former NSW Supreme Court judge Jeff Shaw, who recently resigned after crashing his car while allegedly four and a half times over the legal limit, had taken a trip to New Zealand earlier in the year at a cost of $4000 to taxpayers. Precisely what the link was between the car accident and judicial holidays nobody ventured to say, nor did any one bother to point out that the object of the trip was for he and other judges to attend a professional conference aimed at enhancing judicial skills. Before making blanket statements against judges we should not forget that Mr Shaw represents only one of the 46 full-time Supreme Court judges listed on the Lawlink NSW website, and for the large part judges are among the most exemplary members of the community.

As a law graduand who had the opportunity to work as an intern with a Supreme Court Judge of NSW, I can only disagree with the suggestions that ‘judges are a pampered lot’ (see the Australian, 3 December 2004, p 15). During that internship I was required to sit through a trial in which the accused was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth government to the tune of $2 million through tax evasion. The trial, which was by no means atypical, went on for six weeks and was certainly one of the most exhausting mental experiences I have had to endure. It appeared that I was not the only one who had a tough time staying attentive: some of the jury panel dozed off only three days into the trial.

All the while the judge for whom I worked remained astutely alert in what can only be described as a painstaking and arduous court case. Indeed, the judge concerned (like many of the judicial officers on his floor) seemed to spend most of his evenings in chambers writing up judgments, and it was not unusual to see many of them studiously researching over the weekend. Finally, it cannot be forgotten that most senior judges are paid significantly less on the bench than they were when they roamed the courts as Queen’s Counsel. This may pose great questions about the nature of our legal system, but until someone comes up with a superior one we should be wary of catchcries for radical change.

The reality is that judicial officers, like academics, nurses, doctors and many other public sector employees, are being asked to do much more with less as part of a counterproductive culture of economic rationalisation. Despite the benefits heralded by its proponents, the result in the legal context has been continued backlogs, an inferior standard of justice and people being kept in gaol for longer than they should be.

The argument that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is a real one. But it must be recognised that this has as much to do with inadequate funding on behalf of governments and the concomitant reductions in real terms of funding to Legal Aid and community legal centres, as it does judicial vacations. The sooner policy makers and the public alike recognise this, the sooner we will arrive at a more efficacious justice system.

Reducing judicial holidays is not the answer. One only has to sit through a trial, or see first hand how hard most judges’ work, to realise that four to seven weeks holiday is pretty well deserved.

Sebastian De Brennan is a research associate with the Australian Expert Group in Industry Studies, College of Law and Business, University of Western Sydney

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