The Legislative and Executive branches of Malawi Government are set on a collision course over judges’ proposed new perks, reminiscent of the 2009 saga.
Back then, a similar disagreement spurred a strike that crippled the Malawi’s justice delivery system two years later.
On one hand, we have learnt that Parliament’s Public Appointments and Declaration of Assets Committee last month agreed “in principle” to approve the conditions of service that the Judiciary proposed for itself.
On the other hand, the Executive is geared to stonewall the move, according to Treasury sources and reading between the lines of an interview Weekend Nation had with Finance Minister Dr. Ken Lipenga on Monday this week.
The judges— according to the revised Conditions of Service for Judicial Officers—among other things, want their fuel perks to jump by an average of 120 percent, settlement allowance to increase by 1 500 percent and furniture allowances to surge by 60 percent.
The new proposals also want the Chief Justice to have a retirement package that is almost similar to that of a retired State Vice-President.
Demands for Mercs
The Judiciary also wants the Chief Justice to be entitled to three vehicles for official and private use “provided that one of the three vehicles shall be a Mercedes Benz.”
For the Justices of Appeal, judges and the registrar, the proposal is that they be given two vehicles, one of which should be a Mercedes Benz.
At current market prices, Mercedes Benz cost between K30 million (about $75 000) and K45 million (about $112 000), a proposal Lipenga is at pains to digest.
“I am aware of the demands from the judges and I am just as mystified as everyone about the nature of their demands,” said Lipenga.
He declined to comment on whether government can afford to buy each judge a Mercedes Benz and meet all other demands if Parliament were to approve.
However, Lipenga wondered how, at a time Capital Hill wants to get rid of Mercedez Benz in the Executive as part of an austerity drive given how expensive these vehicles are to run, another branch appears oblivious to the efforts.
A well-placed Treasury source told Weekend Nation in an interview on Wednesday, that Capital Hill will not go along with the parliamentary committee’s adoption of the proposals.
He said: “Our resource envelope has been shrinking and cannot accommodate such opulence because to do that we will have to forego many other essential services.”
Committee agreed in principle
Two members of the Public Appointments and Declaration of Assets Committee, each pleading anonymity, corroborated that the House’s select committee—constitutionally mandated to approve Judiciary’s perks—agreed in principle and in general to approve the proposed pay hike only that they had not enough time to agree on finer details because did not have enough funds to allow them finalise their position.
But the committee’s chairperson Nick Masebo said in an interview on Thursday that his committee is yet to conclude the issue and admitted that time and funds were factors that affected them.
“We have not yet made a final determination on the Judiciary proposals, but we have consulted Treasury and the Public Service Commission on this,” he said.
“We were funded for a week, but when the week finished, we could not continue because we needed more funds to continue on several other issues, including the judges’ proposed Conditions of Service,” he said.
Legally, it is Parliament—not the Executive—that has a final say on what judges can get as remuneration, according to Section 114 of the Constitution, which empowers Parliament to determine remuneration for judges.
“The Chief Justice and all holders of judicial office shall receive a salary and other employment benefits for their services and, on retirement, such pension as gratuity and or other allowance, from time to time, be determined by the National Assembly,” reads the section in part.
Conditions of Service for judges stipulate that their salaries and perks be reviewed every three years. The last review was carried out in 2009.
In March 2009, the Judiciary funded an emergency Public Appointments Committee meeting just before its dissolution to approve perks they had proposed for themselves.
That committee did approve, only for the post-May 2009 Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) parliamentary majority, which dominated the committee, to derail the move by demanding that the Judiciary restart the process of making a fresh request to the legislative body for consideration.
Pay hike every three years
The Malawi Law Society at the time advised Parliament to treat the judges’ salary issue carefully because, said the body, the judges’ conditions of service state that their salaries should be increased every three years.
Even after Parliament later approved, government stonewalled the process until a 2012 Judiciary strike that crippled the country’s justice delivery system for two and half months forced its hand.
Other demands in the new conditions are that a spouse who accompanies a judicial officer shall be entitled to two-thirds of the officer’s subsistence allowance entitlement whereas a child would be entitled to a third of the officer’s subsistence allowance.
There have also been proposals to settlement allowance, which applies under three circumstances: on each occasion that the officer is required to move his or her household effects to a new station on posting or transfer; twice on each occasion that he or she is required to move from one house to another in any one year and each time he or she is required to temporarily vacate a house for a period exceeding one month while at the same work station.
Thus, under these circumstances, judges’ settlement allowances are proposed to jump from K20 000 (about $50) to K400 000 (about $1 000), that of the registrar, chairperson, senior deputy registrar, deputy registrar, deputy chairperson and chief resident magistrate may move from K20 000 (about $50) to K350 000 (about $875), that of assistant registrar from K20 000 to K300 000 (about $750).
Settlement allowances for principal resident magistrate and senior resident magistrate could jump from K15 000 (about $37.50) to K200 000 (about $500) where as those of the first grade magistrate and second grade magistrate may move from K10 000 (about $25) to K150 000 (about $375) and those of third and fourth grade magistrates increases from K8 000 (about $20) to K100 000 (about $250).
The judges also want diplomatic passports for themselves and their spouses even in retirement. They also demand to be paid for paternity leave of up to 30 consecutive calendar days once every three years.