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    Judges face too much flak, too little salary
    By Alex Mitchell, Sun Herald State Political Editor
    June 9 2002
    The Sun-Herald

    Judges on their annual procession to the Supreme Court. Photo: Brendan Esposito.

    Related links:
    'Silly old duffers' tag taking toll on Bench

    Constant brickbats from politicians, the public and the media are making senior lawyers wary of accepting positions as judges in NSW.

    A Sun-Herald survey of the legal profession has found barristers are no longer eager to finish their careers on the Bench because of the job's high level of stress and what they describe as "ill-informed pillorying" by MPs and commentators.

    Bigger workloads and less attractive salaries are also among reasons the cream of the legal profession cite for turning down the chance to join the judiciary.

    The result is concern from top law officials that the quality of those serving may diminish.

    The reluctance of lawyers to accept judicial office has already caught the attention of Australia's highest legal figure, High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, a former NSW chief justice. In a speech marking the centenary of the NSW Bar Association 10 days ago, he called for a "revival of the idea that acceptance of judicial office when offered by government is a valuable and worthwhile thing".



    "There was a time when judicial appointment was regarded as the natural conclusion of a successful career at the Bar," he said.

    Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC said it was "regrettable" that senior barristers were wary of judicial appointment and one result might be the dilution of the quality of the NSW Bench.

    "In my personal opinion, the position of judges has become less attractive in recent years," he said. "This is because working conditions are more onerous, there is no time for proper research or for reflection to make considered judgments. They are asked to do too much work." He said senior barristers were used tobeing in the public spotlight and they had the freedom to respond to any criticism.

    "But once they go on to the Bench they are constantly exposed to public commentary, not all of it well-informed, and they have very few opportunities to respond."

    Ron Williams QC said it was no secret in the legal community that a position on the judiciary no longer carried the prestige it once held.

    "It used to be regarded as a most dignified and prestigious position," Mr Williams said. "Today the salary and superannuation aren't as attractive as they were 10 or 20 years ago, judges are overworked and have less support staff, they work seven days a week and then they are likely to be pilloried by the media and the Government won't back them up.

    "Why would any barrister want the position on those terms?"

    He said judges had become "fair game" for politicians from both sides of the political divide. "That never happened 20 years ago," he said.

    "I can't recall a party room cheering a minister for making a politically inspired attack on Federal Court judges but that is reportedly what happened this week to [Immigration Minister] Philip Ruddock."

    He said that no barrister would decline an appointment to the High Court of Australia or the NSW Court of Appeal because they were the most senior and prestigious in the legal community.

    "But courts below the top, the middle-sized courts dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, the courts that really matter, they are not getting the top-quality judges that they need," he said.

    Defamation and criminal barrister David Campbell said judges were no longer as revered as they once were.

    "They have lost much of their independence because the politicians are telling them what to do with guideline sentencing, they work incredibly long hours, they usually take a pay cut to go on to the Bench and then they get kicked from pillar to post by the media," he said.

    But barrister Phillip Boulten said when the Government recently advertised for magistrates, more than 400 applied, many of them senior members of the Bar.

    NSW Bar Association president Bret Walker SC said attorneys-general, who are responsible for recruiting judges, were often knocked back by their first choices.

    "This could be the result of a variety of reasons: children still at school, the burden of a big mortgage or simply enjoying the work they are doing," he said.

    Because there was no longer a reluctance to criticise members of the judiciary publicly, this might make it less attractive to some members of the legal community, he said.

    Criminal lawyer Chris Murphy said that in the past barristers accumulated considerable private wealth at the Bar and then retired to the Bench.

    "Because things have become so competitive and so tough, many barristers now see elevation to the judiciary as an escape from unemployment at the Bar," he said.

    "Instead of getting top-level QCs, the ones who are going to the Bench are those who are less skilled and less competent.

    "The big stars don't want to become judges. Why should they? It's like going from being Brad Fittler and retiring to become a linesman."

    Barrister Frank Stevens, a practitioner for 27 years, said the main reason barristers were reluctant to go to the Bench was the increasing workload.

    "Thirty years ago it was a cushy little number," he said.

    "Now the pressure is on them. As soon as they finish one case, they go straight on to another because the court lists are packed full."

    NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus, commenting on the survey results, said: "It is undoubtedly true that the responsibility of being a judge is not to be taken lightly. The job requires a great deal of commitment and hard work...

    But there is no doubt that the status and challenge working as a judicial officer continues to attract candidates of the highest calibre."

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