Federally appointed judges’ expenses to be made public for first time

July 26, 2020
Federally appointed judges' expenses to be made public for first time

The expenses of federally appointed judges will be made public this week for the first time — the result of recently implemented changes to the Access to Information Act.

The Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs is expected to publish the numbers on Tuesday, which will include travel, meal, conference and office equipment costs, among other expenses.

The Liberal government pushed the proactive disclosure rules as part of measures to improve transparency and accountability under Bill C-58, An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, which became law in 2019.

The move is meant to enhance transparency and accountability in the judicial system — but it has faced resistance from federal judges. 

The Canadian Superior Courts Judges Association, the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) and the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) have argued the bill jeopardizes judges’ personal safety and judicial independence. The organizations insist there are already internal accountability controls to approve and review spending.

“A delicately balanced system designed to reconcile judicial independence with accountability for the expenditure of public funds is already in place. Bill C-58 will disrupt that system,” says a CBA brief.

The released information will not include the names of individual judges, but will include the number of judges who have had certain expenses reimbursed.

The legislation requires all federally appointed judges to proactively disclose their expenses every three months. 

Travel expenses are expected to be lower than usual in Tuesday’s publication because of the pandemic. Expenses for technology could be higher, reflecting the fact that more judges have been working from home.

A weaker case for transparency?

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, calls the upcoming publication of judicial expenses a positive step but said the case for making judges’ incidental expenses public is not as strong as it is for senators, MPs or provincial MLAs.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, says judges can’t publicly defend themselves from criticism of their spending. (Nick Pearce)

“The courts are clearly regarded as a separate kind of institution,” MacKay said. 

“They are a non-political branch of government and, in that sense, the case for absolute transparency on these things isn’t as compelling.”

Unlike politicians and other public officials, MacKay said, judges also aren’t able to publicly defend or explain themselves.

“That’s something else that maybe needs to be addressed,” he said.

“How can we deal with questions that may have legitimate answers if they had some opportunity through some vehicle to respond to that?”

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it’s an anomaly that the expenses of judges have not been made public up to this point.

Wudrick said the disclosure just brings judges in line with the rules for other people paid with public money.

“It’s reasonable for taxpayers to know how their money is being spent,” Wudrick said.

“That’s the reason we push for disclosure, for example, for members of Parliament and senators, and I think judges would fall under the same standard.”

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