District judges win right to extra pay for ‘acting up’ in NI county court

The Laganside court complex in Belfast city centre hosts magistrates, coroners and county courts
The Laganside court complex in Belfast city centre hosts magistrates, coroners and county courts

Five district judges in Northern Ireland have been unlawfully discriminated against while “acting up” as deputy county court judges (DCCJ), an employment tribunal has ruled.

Although the Department of Justice has always treated the county court duties as a contractual obligation, the tribunal found that “nothing in statute or contract appears to require them to accept the role of DCCJ”.

The five judges – Hilary Keegan, Isobel Brownlie, Ruth Collins, William Duncan and Philip Gilpin - normally sit in the magistrates’ courts but are occasionally required to hear a wide range of civil actions, and appeals from magistrates’ hearings, in the county court.

While acting up they do not receive any additional salary or payment in respect of the days when, for part of the day or for the whole day, they sat as deputy county court judges.

As the county court judges are paid at a higher rate than those in the magistrates’ court, lawyers for the five district judges (DJ) successfully claimed that their clients should be paid accordingly while acting up.

The three-person tribunal panel sitting in Belfast ruled that the higher court responsibilities should be classed as separate employment for the purposes of pay and pension entitlement.

The panel found that the two responsibilities could not be reasonably assessed as one judicial role, and ruled against the Ministry of Justice and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice.

Lawyers representing the district judges put forward an argument based on someone who worked for a supermarket – employed on a part-time basis as a till operator for three days, but also had a part-time role for the other two days in a standard working week sweeping the car park.

They argued that the employee would be engaged through two separate contracts in the same working week for the same employer.

The tribunal agreed that “that worker would have two part-time contracts or employment relationships, rather than a single contract or employment relationship”.

Commenting on the roles of district judges and DCCJs, the panel said: “They required two different qualifying periods of professional practice. The tribunal does not accept that these two separate and distinct appointments can properly be viewed as a single employment relationship or as a single appointment.”

The panel said: “The unanimous decision of the tribunal is that the claimants have been unlawfully discriminated against by the respondents contrary to the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations (NI) 2000 and the Part-time Workers Directive 97/81 EC.”

The five judges were represented by Mr Robin Allen QC, and Mr Adrian Colmer, Barrister-at-Law, instructed by O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors.

How the district judges’ pay and pensions discrepancy can be remedied will be determined at a separate tribunal hearing. The current salary of a district judge is £108,171.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said: “As this matter is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment.”