Canada's Department of Justice has begun to claw back almost $400,000 worth of bonuses erroneously awarded to dozens of federal lawyers, the second major botch-up by officials in charge of compensation and benefits.

An internal investigation has found that 74 lawyers were mistakenly given lump sums of between $1,064 and $9,908 as performance pay that was technically against the rules.

William Pentney, deputy minister, Justice Department

An internal briefing for William Pentney, deputy minister of justice, says the department must claw back bonuses worth an average of $5,250. (Federal Justice Department)

The improper largesse occurred between 2013 and 2015 for a group of lawyers that were also given salary increases at the same time. A new government rule had come into effect forbidding anyone from receiving a pay increase and a bonus in the same year.

Federal law allows no discretion to management on the issue, so the department must find ways to recover the money.

Debt to Crown

"These overpayment amounts, although no fault of the employees, are considered a debt to the Crown and must be recovered," says a July 15 briefing package to the deputy minister that was obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

"Management should expect affected employees to respond negatively."

The average payment to be clawed back is $5,250. The department is allowing lawyers who want the repayment to be spread out to do so, with a minimum payment of 10 per cent from each from their paycheques.

The screw-up also affected 12 lawyers at the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, where the money has since been recovered. Other clawback measures started in December last year.

'The Pay Centre is taking all necessary actions to recover overpayments.' - Andrew Gowing, Justice Canada spokesman

"Justice Canada provided the Public Service Pay Centre with the information necessary to start the repayments in December 2015, and the Pay Centre is taking all necessary actions to recover overpayments," department spokesman Andrew Gowing said in an email.

"We do not have an update on exactly how much has been recovered to date."

Nick McCarthy, spokesman for the lawyers' union, the Association of Justice Counsel, says it has a "common understanding" with the government on the issue, and has not filed any grievance in the matter.

The episode is the second human-resources mess the department has had to clean up over the past two years.

Sloppy record-keeping

CBC News reported last week that sloppy record-keeping had apparently given lawyers up to $50 million worth of leave time that, at least on paper, they were not entitled to.

The Department of Justice launched a massive "leave reconciliation" exercise that has required some 3,700 employees and ex-employees to account for up to 500,000 hours of leave — going back to 2007 — that appeared to be awarded improperly.

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Tony Clement, Treasury Board president in the previous government, says the Justice Department should have been more transparent with Parliament about its "leave reconciliation" project. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Both the union, which launched a grievance in that matter, and the department call the problem a mere clerical error, minor enough that Parliament did not need to be informed of the potential liability.

Former Treasury Board president Tony Clement has disputed that, saying Parliament should have been clearly and fully informed in the department's routine financial statements.

Asked whether the performance-pay screw up and leave-reconciliation mess are signs of deeper problems in the department's personnel administration, Gowing said: "The department is confident in its compensation system and the employees that manage it."

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