Judges escalate protest over pay
The work of Slovenian courts will be severely scaled back over the next two weeks as judges escalated their protest against the government's failure to raise their pay as mandated by the Constitutional Court.
During their protest between 10 and 24 January, judges responsible for proceedings in individual cases will decide themselves whether to call off the scheduled hearings. Parties will be notified of cancellations.
According to data available on the websites of courts, hearings in most litigation and corporate cases have been cancelled, as have many in criminal cases although reasons for cancellations are not available.
The Association of Judges decided to escalate their protest on 4 January when they staged an hour long work stoppage along with prosecutors a day after the deadline set by the country's top court for its decision on judge pay to be implemented passed.
The Constitutional Court ruled in June 2023 that the salaries paid to judges are so low they jeopardise the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. While their pay has not been rising, it has in the other two branches of government and the balance has been disrupted.
While agreeing that pay in the judiciary is too low and promising to tackle the matter, the government has been insisting that it will resolve the issue as part of comprehensive wage reform in the entire public sector, which is yet to be agreed.
It earlier reached pay deals with judges and doctors which were to come into effect on 1 January this year along with public sector pay reform, but the government decided to delay all of that after the country was hit by devastating floods in August.
It has now been adamant not to enter into separate agreements with individual professions and even signed a deal with some of the unions where the latter agree not to start any strike activities until 13 September 2024 unless the government agrees pay rises with any group of public employees or officials effective before that date.
Insisting on a separate deal, doctors staged a token strike on 9 January and are willing to start a general strike later on, while judges insist that their case has nothing to do with pay reform but is a matter of the rule of law where court decisions must be implemented.
Judges put up united front
Vesna Bergant Rakočević, the head of the Association of Judges, repeated on 10 January her call for the government and the legislator to take immediate steps to implement the Constitutional Court's decision.
She said judges' response to the protest has been "plebiscitary". "Virtually all judges who were not on holiday or sick leave took part in the protest meeting, regardless of whether they are members of the Association of Judges or not".
According to her, the association has more than 600 members. The latest publicly available data from the Supreme Court shows that there were a total of 878 serving judges in 2022.
The association will reassess the situation and consider further steps on 30 January and Bergant Rakočević said they hoped by then the political decision-makers will have realised "that the rule of law stands and falls with the judiciary's independence, and will provide the conditions for our independent work".
President supports judges
Endorsing the judges, Slovenia's President Nataša Pirc Musar called for consistent respect for the decisions of the Constitutional Court, including on judge pay.
"The rule of law means consistent respect for and compliance with the decisions of the courts. In the past, I have often warned of the harmful consequences of so-called legal hooliganism, which includes disregard for court decisions, as it undermines the rule of law and erodes people's trust in the judiciary," the president said.
Justice Minister Dominika Švarc Pipan regretted the delay in the implementation of the court's decision on judge pay, promising it would be implemented in the shortest possible time.
The minister said she did not have the mandate to negotiate with the judges, that being within the remit of the Public Administration Ministry and the government as a whole.
Prosecutors are also planning to go on strike later this month or next month unless the court's pay decision is implemented, and the Bar Association has expressed support for the protest.
Judges held a 10-month work-to-rule strike in 2008-09 before the government agreed to align their wages to those in the executive and legislative, and have fixed pay prevail over performance-based wages as decreed by the Constitutional Court in two earlier decisions.