Oh, look – the judges are chewing up millions on travel and attending conferences

Nice work by Vernon Small at The Dom-Post today.

He has flushed out figures showing judges have clocked up more than $18 million on travel and accommodation over the past three years.

Among these were five overseas trips where Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias took her husband Hugh along at taxpayers’ expense.

Hugh who?

Oh, yes. Business tycoon Hugh Fletcher, who used to be chief executive of Fletcher Challenge and whose family’s wealth is reckoned to be $70 million, although Alf is always bemused about how the newspapers make that sort of calculation.

In thise case the reckoning was done by the National Business Review, which last year ranked the wider Fletcher family 53rd equal on its rich list.

Anyway, Hugh dutifully accompanied Dame Sian to the Caribbean Turks and Caicos islands in 2009-10 for a Commonwealth Magistrates Judges Association conference.

In the same year he accompanied her to the United States, London and Melbourne.

Perhaps she relies on him to keep her judges’ robes clean and ironed on these occasions, or some such.

So what are the rules about who pays for Hugh’s travels with his missus?

Small tells us in his report, posted on Stuff –

Judges must pay personally for spousal travel, except where the chief justice attends in a representative capacity and is accompanied by her spouse.

The total cost of the year’s travel for Dame Sian in 2009-10 was $74,488. It is not clear how much the taxpayer paid for Mr Fletcher’s travel.

Dame Sian’s salary is reported to be $460,000.

She is due to retire in 2017, by which time she and Hugh could well have covered much of the globe attending conferences for judges, which Alf imagines are very tedious affairs although they are apt to take place in attractive places.

If Mrs Grumble was a judge, Alf would be chuffed to accompany her to such conferences, although she could not count on him to clean and iron her robes.

Oh, but let’s take note of the next bit of the Stuff report.

It draws attention to a bureaucratic attempt to keep these travel costs under wraps, an action which has raised Alf’s ire now that his travel expenses and those of fellow MPs are publicly aired on a regular basis.

A Dominion Post request last July for details of judges’ travel and accommodation costs, as well as spousal expenses and costs of attending conferences, was initially declined by the Justice Ministry because it was “judicial information rather than official information” and was therefore not covered by the Official Information Act. But some information has now been provided by the ministry after consultation with Dame Sian.

The acting deputy secretary of courts, Robert Pigou, said the initial refusal in part reflected the need for judicial independence.

“The courts must be, and be seen to be, separate from and independent of the executive.”

The judiciary does enjoy independenece from the executive, or should according to Alf’s books on good governance in a democratic state which he reads assiduously.

But when it comes to picking up their pay packets, the money comes from taxpayers, so obviously the judges are dependent on the government for some things. Including travel expenses.

But let’s go on –

The information now disclosed covers travel and accommodation costs, including international travel, for classes of judges, but it is not broken down by individual trip or by each judge. Mr Pigou said that would not be possible.

Alf suspects it is possible. If it can be done for MPs, it can be done for judges – don’t you think?

But let’s look at the lump numbers.

Last year the ministry budgeted $447,461 for judges’ international travel costs, up from $442,855 the previous year.

Mr Pigou said most domestic claims related to circuit work by some 170 judges who travel around New Zealand.

Except for two sums of under $2000 spent by the chief coroner, the only break-down data disclosed related to the international travel expenses of Dame Sian.

They show she undertook these trips at an all-up cost of $165,162 over three years:

2008-09: Six international trips. To Australia (four times), Qatar and to a seminar at the Yale law school in Boston. She took Mr Fletcher on two of the Australia trips. The total cost was $42,684.

2009-10: To Australia (three times), London (for two events) and to the US and then the Turks and Caicos for a Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association conference. Mr Fletcher accompanied her on the US and Turks and Caicos trip, to the final sitting of the House of Lords in London before New Zealand severed its links, and to Melbourne. The total cost was $74,488.

2010-11: During the year she visited Boston, Melbourne, Vancouver, San Francisco, Samoa, Tokelau, Korea and Perth, and represented New Zealand at the Commonwealth Law Conference in India. Mr Fletcher did not accompany her during the year. The total cost was $47,990.

For more numbers, Alf suggests you read the story at Stuff.

He is impressed by the numbers of conferences it seems our judges attend.

He has some sympathy with them on this one.

Their jobs require them to sit on their bums all day listening patiently to evidence, cross-examination, and all that judicial carry-on.

And then they go to conferences and sit on their bums listening patiently to various legal luminiaries discussing the finer points of the judging caper.

It’s a tough life, obviously.

Mind you, let’s not be misled by references to them sitting on “the bench”. Nah. Their chairs look quite comfy, actually.

The risk of deep-vein thrombosis is probably greater than the risk of going home with sore bottoms.

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