Politics

Federally appointed judges' pandemic-period expenses released

Newly released expenses from federally appointed judges show they appear to be a frugal lot. 

'It's going to set a pretty low bar for what the expenses might be in the future,' says law prof

Federally appointed judges expensed triple the amount they spent for travel on incidentals, such as electronics. (MYP Studio/Shutterstock)

Newly released expenses for federally appointed judges show they seem to be a frugal lot.

The judges' expenses for travel, conferences and even dry cleaning between April and the end of June 2020 were released today by the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs and the Supreme Court of Canada.

The information was released as a result of changes recently implemented by the Liberal government to the Access to Information Act.

Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, became law in 2019.

The expenses were published in aggregate and the names of individual judges were withheld.

"I was actually a bit disappointed," said Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"It makes it very difficult to see if there's anything unusual in them."

At the Supreme Court of Canada, six justices expensed $4,777.89 for incidentals, including electronic equipment and court attire.

There weren't any expenses filed under the travel and conference allowance for the top court — reflecting pandemic restrictions that forced judges to work remotely.

The other 792 federally appointed judges presiding in courts across the country who filed expenses billed almost $1.7 million for incidentals — triple what they filed for travel.

Although more judges were working from home during the pandemic, the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs shows $491,670 was filed in total for travel expenses, including meals, accommodations and transportation.

It's not clear if these travel expenses were incurred after the COVID-19 outbreak, since judges are allowed to file expenses from the previous quarter.

The dollar amounts aren't broken down by category, either. 

Line items and names of judges omitted from data

Wudrick said he would have liked to see the names of judges revealed, along with more details.

"They are very different than other people paid for by taxpayers, but they are still paid for by taxpayer money," Wudrick said.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said the numbers are being presented responsibly to protect judges while offering transparency.

"To me, nothing untoward appeared in any of the expenses claims," MacKay said.

"It's probably quite an atypical set of expenses … It's going to set a pretty low bar for what the expenses might be in the future."

MacKay said he expects the expenses to increase as travel regulations ease. 

If questions arise over why judges are expensing more in some courts than in others, MacKay said, court registrars should step in to explain — since judges are prevented from defending themselves publicly.

The Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs audits approximately 22,000 expense claims annually from approximately 1,200 federally appointed judges across Canada.

The Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association, the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) and the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) initially argued the publication of expenses could jeopardize judges' personal safety since their work covers many emotionally fraught cases involving child custody, disputes over wills and estates and criminal convictions.

The organizations also insisted there were already internal accountability controls to approve and review spending.

But the CJC and CBA are now welcoming the information since the identifies of judges aren't being disclosed. 

"We are pleased that this first proactive publication of judicial expenses strikes the right balance between openness and the need to protect judicial independence," reads a statement from the CJC.

The expenses will be updated every three months.

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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