FORMER CHIEF JUSTICE Clinton Bernard has never been afraid of speaking his mind and last Sunday was no exception. As Bernard launched his autobiography, he made clear the hurt he felt over the State’s failure, in 2014, to approve measures increasing the pensions of judges.
“I have forgiven them. But I am hurt,” Bernard said to an audience of invited guests at Stollmeyer’s Castle in Port of Spain.
Bernard, who was chief justice from 1985 to 1995, has every reason to hold a grudge. He has served his country in many capacities, not only in the Judiciary. For instance, he chaired the important commission of enquiry into the Piarco International Airport affair. As chief justice, he also pushed the boundaries of judicial advocacy, openly calling on governments to introduce reforms and changes.
At times, his statements have been controversial, yet, he has always furthered the interest of democracy by generating considerable discussion on issues such as bail, the terms of service of judicial officers and standards at the Bar. As he marks his 85th year with the publication of his life story, Beyond the Bridge, it should come as no surprise that he would, once more, raise his voice.
Yet, there has been a notable silence from the powers that be since Bernard’s statement on Sunday. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that Bernard’s complaint relates to what was a highly unpopular measure promulgated under the People’s Partnership administration and supported by the then PNM Opposition.
Two bills – the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) Bill 2013 and the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill 2013 – were passed in the House of Representatives, significantly improving pensions for judges and MPs. Under the arrangements, the pension of a chief justice would move from $50,350 tax-free to $93,223.
The bills, which were lumped together in the Parliament, provoked a firestorm of criticism as they appeared to be a case of MPs raising their own salaries. Bernard on Sunday lamented that the bills were money bills and did not need the approval of the Senate – where debate on them was suspended. In truth, as money bills, the measures would have been automatically assented to by the President but for the passing, on July 28, 2014, of a special motion in the House of Representatives barring the President’s assent.
The terms of service of judges should have never been lumped with those for sitting politicians. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, both do completely different things. Secondly, the Judiciary is independent and there should be minimal interaction between judges’ terms of service and the Executive.
As plans to increase the number of judges come to fruition, it is important for attention to be paid to the terms of service of all judicial officers to ensure they are fair and competitive given the sacrifices judges – whose personal lives are highly circumscribed by their duties – have to make.