Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Wage pause' for judges legitimate, province argues at Court of Appeal

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Was the government completely up front when a legislative committee rejected an independent report three years ago recommending provincial court judges get a pay raise?

That was part of the argument during a daylong hearing Thursday in the Manitoba Court of Appeal between the lawyers for the province and its judges. The case involves an Oct. 26, 2009 decision by the standing committee on legislative affairs to reject a recommendation made by the judicial compensation committee (JCC) to bump up judges' pay.

At issue is whether the NDP had adequately justified its position on wage restraint, in response to the onset of the global recession and a slowing provincial economy, to the JCC and its judges.

The province's lawyer, Keith Labossiere, told the court it had, and the committee's decision to reject the JCC's wage recommendations was constitutionality sound.

"The province had to react to the changing landscape," Labossiere said. "The judges happened to be one of the first groups, if you will, that the government was required to consider."

The JCC had proposed giving judges five per cent wage hikes for each of 2009 and 2010, raising their annual salaries to $211,862 in the following year.

But the committee, through a motion tabled by then-finance minister Rosann Wowchuk, rejected that, saying the recommended increase would "foster a perception that judges are not shouldering their fair share of the burden in difficult economic times."

Citing the recession and a poor economy, the committee then substituted its own 2.9 per cent increase over the two years instead.

The judges said that decision flew in the face of the well-established independent JCC process -- judges do not negotiate their own wages and benefits -- and took the province to court.

They won, with Court of Queen's Bench Judge Jeffery Oliphant describing the actions of that committee as a "total sham." He also ordered the government to pay the salary differentials along with the judges' court costs.

The province appealed, and on Thursday Labossiere told the three-judge Court of Appeal panel the committee and government acted within their legislative authority to reject the JCC's recommendations.

He said the government had already let it be known it wanted wage restraint -- Wowchuk called it "a wage pause" -- from its public servants to deal with a slowing economy.

The Court of Appeal reserved its decision.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 B4

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