Cost-of-living increase cuts into court budget

The old Scotiabank building on Cardinal Avenue in George Town will be used to house additional court facilities. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Government’s 5% rise in cost of living for civil servants has taken a toll on the judiciary’s budget and its plans for staffing increases.

Court Administrator Suzanne Bothwell made the point Thursday when she appeared before the Public Accounts Committee in the Legislative Assembly to answer questions relating to the auditor general’s report on the efficiency of the Summary Courts.

“My intentions are now put at risk because I do have to find quite significant funding in my budget to pay the cost-of-living adjustment because no dedicated funding was there and I do believe in my budget it’s about $300,000,” she told the PAC.

“It’s not an insignificant amount. I am working with the chief officer to see how we can massage our existing budget but there may be, at the end of the day, a decision sooner rather than later,” she said.

Bothwell said she had requested more funds to bolster the courts’ existing staffing complement and had lobbied hard to ensure there would be no staff cuts. Roughly $6 million was allocated to Judicial Administration for the 2019-2021 budget cycle.

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However, she told the PAC, she now has to “find the money in my existing budget to pay for” the cost-of-living adjustment, which the original budget had not accounted for.
She said her technical staff advised her to cut the unfilled posts she lobbied to get approval for. “I cannot do that,” she said.

“We are still working through this year on what efficiencies we can bring to how we do our work to keep the cost down, so we can pay the staff the additional funds whilst I am successfully able to stagger our costs and fill the posts over time,” she told the committee.

The judiciary has a staff of 60.

The 5% cost-of-living increase for civil servants came into effect on 1 Jan. this year.
PAC chairman Ezzard Miller expressed surprise that the additional funding was not included in the budget allocated to the judiciary. “That’s just bad budgeting,” he said.

The PAC was reviewing the auditor general’s 43-page report, which found that a lack of performance and financial information made it “difficult to assess the overall efficiency and effectiveness of Summary Courts or Judicial Administration”.

Staffing challenges was one of the areas identified in the report. It also questioned a lack of performance measures and the justification for 10 courtrooms, when a business case was not in place on the dollar-for-value for such a project.

However, Bothwell questioned the fairness of the report, contending that little attention was paid to the World Bank measurement scale used by the judiciary to assess efficiencies, while emphasis was placed on the International Consortium for Court Excellence.

Auditor General Sue Winspear defended the report, saying that the assessments were based on the evidence that was given to her team. “We saw limited evidence of performance information,” she said. “If we had seen significant information relating to the World Bank stance, which we do reference, then we would have given credit. So, our position is we’ve tried to be fair based on the evidence we’ve been given and the evidence we’ve seen around performance is limited.”

Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders assured Bothwell the intention of the PAC was not to get into the inner workings of courts as there is a separation between the executive and the judiciary.

However, he said there must be a clear outline of what the court needs to function efficiently to ensure justice is delivered.

He questioned the delay in outfitting the Scotiabank building with courtrooms and finalising a business outline case for the overall project. Bothwell said both the outline and the full business cases should be completed soon.

She said the delay in that process stemmed from reworking the plans for the Scotiabank building to give the Court of Appeal a permanent home.

Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, in his Grand Court opening speech in January, said the project was delayed because permission was needed from the Planning Department and input from Lands and Survey.

However, during the sitting of the Legislative Assembly last month, Lands Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said she was still awaiting a response from the Judiciary Administration on the reason for the delay in moving ahead with the old Scotiabank building. She contended the departments under her ministry had completed their association with the project.

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