Justice Minister Judith Collins will not be endearing herself to some of her legal colleagues now in the judiciary, but she is right. The judges' long service leave entitlement negotiated with the previous Government is "generous". She might have used a stronger word were it not for the restraint that parliamentarians and judges are supposed to exercise when commenting on the work of the other.
"Excessive" would be a better description of the perk that gives judges five months leave every five years, in addition to the seven weeks' holiday they have every year. The deal was done for District Court judges five years ago but has only now come to public notice thanks to Ms Collins' determination to find out why, despite falling crime rates, the courts remain so slow.
Labour's Attorney General, Sir Michael Cullen, cannot recollect the reason he agreed to extend the judges long service leave from 65 to 100 days in a package of conditions negotiated in 2008, Labour's last year of office. As someone familiar with academic "sabbaticals", Sir Michael supposed judges would spend the time catching up with developments in their field. The Chief District Court Judge, Jan-Marie Doogue, justifies the leave as recognition of increased jurisdiction and complexity of the work of district courts these days. She says it brings the judges' terms and conditions closer to those of the High Court and similar international jurisdictions.
It is no consolation for the taxpayer to learn that judges in New Zealand's higher courts have been enjoying this degree of long service leave for much longer. It means that every five years, a judge can be absent for nearly seven months if the long service entitlement is taken with their annual leave. Though the deal was done five years ago it took effect in September this year, so the consequences are only now becoming apparent. So many judges are scheduled for leave next year that an adviser has suggested, surely in jest, that jury trials be suspended nationwide during June, July and September.
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When judges' total leave entitlements are calculated over five years, they are now required to be in court for only 158 days a year. Besides long service leave, weekends, statutory holidays and their 35 days annual leave, they are given 19 days for activities outside court such as attending conferences. Meanwhile, accused persons, victims of crime and their families commonly wait a year or more for their case to be heard.
Judicial leave is by no means the only cause of court delays but it is the one that ought to be most easily fixed. The judiciary is not a union of lower-paid public servants who could be forgiven for clinging to every term and condition of an employment agreement negotiated on their behalf. Judges are men and women of high integrity who command the utmost public respect. They must be as concerned as Ms Collins at the inefficiency of the courts and as anxious to do whatever is in their power to improve the service they provide.
It should not be too much to expect the judiciary to do the right thing in these circumstances. Clearly they knew the pressure their extended leave entitlement would cause. Chief Judge Doogue says: "When these new terms were concluded, it was identified there would be the necessity for additional judicial resource."
The Justice Minister is tired of hearing appeals for more public expense when the judiciary's criminal caseload is diminishing. She is not alone. The judges ought to look again at their need of long service leave, and concede it is excessive.