North

N.W.T. government and judges at odds over salary and benefits

An independent commission is reviewing a proposal by N.W.T. territorial court judges to see their pay increased to $310,000 from $299,869 annually starting April 1, 2020.

Judges seek bump in pay to $310K, but government challenges proposal

The Government of the Northwest Territories is challenging a proposal put forward by N.W.T. territorial judges for a salary increase. (Walter Strong/CBC)

An independent commission will settle differences between what the Northwest Territories government feels are appropriate increases to pay and benefits for territorial court judges over the next four years, and how much the judges feel is appropriate.

The judges are currently paid $299,869 annually. They want that increased by 3.38 per cent to $310,000 starting April 1, 2020. The judges say for each of the following three years, their salaries should increase the same as the cost of living in Yellowknife, as measured by the consumer price index.

The territorial government says the judges are already among the highest paid provincial and territorial court judges in Canada and should accept increases of 0.5 per cent next year and the year following, and 1.5 per cent in each of the following two years.

"The salary positions are not that different," said government lawyer Brad Patzer during a public hearing of the Judicial Remuneration Commission on Monday. "The first-year increase suggested by the judges is not warranted…. The judges' salaries in recent years have significantly outpaced inflation."

The only public servants paid more than territorial court judges are N.W.T. Supreme Court justices. Effective April 1, 2016, another independent commission set their salaries at $314,100 for regular justices and $344,400 for the chief justice. Their pay has increased each year since then by the same percentages that wages have generally increased in Canada, as measured by a formula called the Industrial Aggregate Index.

The salaries and benefits of N.W.T. Supreme Court justices are scheduled to be reviewed this summer.

By contrast to the judges, the top bureaucrats in the territorial government — deputy ministers — get paid between $203,117 and $279,286, according to Finance Department documents.

The judges and the deputy ministers get paid northern allowances on top of their salaries.

Tougher job than most judges, say N.W.T. judges

The judges say they deserve an increase next year that will likely be well above the inflation rate because it is harder being a judge in the N.W.T. than it is in most other jurisdictions.

"N.W.T. judges spend significantly more time away from their homes than other judges," the judges' lawyer, Susan Dawes, told the commission. That's mainly due to the out-of-town hearings and trials the judges oversee, said Dawes — "Conditions in the smaller communities are particularly onerous," she said.

Dawes also said the high crime rate, and the severity of crime in the N.W.T., contribute to the workload of judges here.

Dawes said just about every other worker in the N.W.T. earns more than people doing the same work in the South, and judges should be no different. 

In written arguments, Dawes cited previous judicial remuneration commissions which concluded judges' salaries in the N.W.T. should rank among the highest in the country.

If N.W.T. judges' salaries are increased to $310,000, it is likely that only their counterparts in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta will earn more. (The recommended increase to Alberta judges' salaries is currently the subject of a court challenge).

The commission is also considering the government's and the judges' arguments on changes to the host of benefits the judges are entitled to, including long-term disability and an education allowance, and extended health-care coverage.

The commission is required to submit its recommendations to the N.W.T. justice minister within 120 days.

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