SCOTLAND’S most senior judge has warned that falling pay has left the bench struggling to attract the “best people” from the legal profession to fill vacancies.
The High Court in Scotland is now operating one judge short, Lord Hamilton told MSPs yesterday, after a recent round of recruitment failed to produce any suitable candidates.
High Court judges take home a salary of about £172,000, with the Lord President himself earning £214,000. This compares with Prime Minister David Cameron’s pay of about £142,000 and First Minister Alex Salmond’s £135,000.
But the public-sector pay freeze means judges now make less than they did “five or seven years ago” in real terms, Lord Hamilton told Holyrood’s justice committee yesterday.
His remarks met with little sympathy last night from opposition MSPs, who said most ordinary workers could “only dream” of the six-figure salaries paid to judges.
Lord Hamilton, who as Lord President and Lord Justice General of Scotland, is head of the judiciary, said the public spending freeze had taken its toll on judicial salaries.
He said: “That gives rise to a number of problems, not least of which is how do we ensure that we encourage the best people qualified for the post to apply to be senators of the College of Justice.
“One of the problems that we had last year was that there was a competition. But the board, having interviewed a number persons, found that none of those who applied were suitable for appointment. So we’ve been in a situation where we have been running one judge short for the last year or so.
“That’s a matter of real concern.”
High Court judges in Scotland hear the most serious criminal cases, including murder, rape and serious assaults. They are recruited as senators of the College of Justice and can also sit in the Court of Session, the top civil court.
Judicial pay is set by the government at Westminster, but repeated calls from the Judicial Senior Salaries Review Board to increase pay in recent years have been ignored by UK ministers.
There are also “real concerns” about changes being made to judicial pensions. Lord Hamilton said, to address the wider problems with public-sector pensions.
But Labour MSP Drew Smith said last night: “Of course we need talented people to become judges, but it’s hard to believe that a salary greater than the Prime Minister’s is not attractive.
“Most people could only dream of a £172,000 salary, with a generous pension too,” he added.
“If low-paid public-sector workers are facing a pay freeze, it would be grossly unfair to give High Court judges an exemption.”
Conservative justice spokesman John Lamont called for urgent action to address the issue.
“Lord Hamilton’s statement gave a deeply concerning insight into the quality of judges being attracted to work in the Scottish justice system,” Mr Lamont said.
“We must always maintain the highest standards in our courts, and if the current pay freeze is leading to a lack of qualified judges, then something must change.
“It is unacceptable that current judges are being stretched thin to cover for the shortage, and immediate steps must be taken to hire an experienced and aptly qualified judge as soon as possible.
“The SNP have to urgently start investing in our justice system, or otherwise risk seeing a dramatic fall in standards.”
High Court judges in Scotland are almost exclusively recruited from the Faculty of Advocates, which is made up of the country’s most senior lawyers. Candidates for the bench are usually QCs, which means they will have about 20 years of experience as an advocate and are usually in their mid-to late fifties.
Some top criminal advocates can expect to make up to £250,000 a year, while in commercial law it can be double this or more. But advocates don’t receive salaries and only make money if they generate work. They are not eligible for public-sector pension available to judges.
Retired judges and temporary judges, who are usually senior advocates or sheriffs, are sometimes drafted in to help out in the High Court during busy periods in an effort to ensure cases are dealt with in a timely fashion.
Lord Hamilton said: “We are conscious, as everyone is, that there are restraints which apply to everybody, and we have to take our responsibility in that regard.
“But it should be borne in mind that for quite a few years now we’ve not kept up with inflation.”
Christine Grahame, who convenes the justice committee, said: “You have that on the record, Lord President, but I’m not sure how sympathetic the public will be.”
A report last year found Scottish judges are paid eight-and-a-half times the country’s average salary, the highest ratio of its kind in Europe.
The most senior members of the nation’s judiciary collect an average of £187,265 each, according to a study of European justice systems.
That makes them among the best-paid lawmen and women on the continent and leaves their wages more out of kilter with average incomes than anywhere else.
The finding was one of several highly controversial revelations from the Council of Europe, the body that oversees the work of the European Court of Human Rights.
Judges in Switzerland and Ireland were paid more than their Scottish equivalents, the study found, but nowhere was the gulf in wages higher between judges and the rest of the country.
Lord Hamilton said yesterday: “There are things on the horizon which might lead to a smaller judicial pay budget required, but it’s still important that we should get the right people in the right jobs.”
About 40 per cent of the courts’ budget goes on wages, with the same proportion spent on building maintenance. Lord Hamilton said some courts might be closed, to cut maintenance costs.
He said: “Some of these buildings are rather old, so therefore the maintenance costs have increased. What we’ve begun, and we’re only at the very early stages of it, is looking at what we really want by way of provision of court buildings in the 21st century.
“Most of them are 19th-century and they were created and built in the places where they were created because of the state of the community of that time, including questions of travel and so on.”
Some sheriff courts and justice of the peace courts have already been amalgamated into a single building, and Lord Hamilton said they were looking to do this more, particularly in Glasgow which he called “the biggest prize”.
However, he added: “It may be at some stage we will have to come to the parliament and say we think that certain steps should be taken, perhaps even closing some courts in the future.”
Lord Hamilton contrasted his view with one given by Richard Keen, QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, before the same committee last week.
Lord Hamilton said: “The dean used the metaphor of musical chairs. I’m not sure the metaphor is wholly apt. I don’t think we’ve got a situation where chairs are being taken off one at a time. What I do think is that we’ll have the same number of chairs, but they will be smaller chairs which are less comfortable to sit in.”