OTTAWA - Federal lawyers who reached their first contract with the government through arbitration last year are incensed officials have gone to court in an attempt to roll back gains for meal allowances, court robe costs, and overtime.
The Association of Justice Counsel, which itself has turned to the Federal Court to amend another aspect of the arbitration award, came out with all guns blazing in a statement to members included in its end-of-year newsletter.
The article said the federal attorney general served notice in early December of the court application on behalf of the Treasury Board. The application seeks judicial review over the arbitration award for overtime, travel-time compensation, meal allowances while working overtime, and court clothing.
The association calls the challenge on overtime and travel a “deliberate” attempt to “extinguish the one area in which we have the potential for true gains for the membership.”
But the newsletter goes further with a scathing attack on the challenge over meal allowances and court robes.
“This is a feeble attempt to be punitive, pure and simple,” the newsletter said. “This is a full-scale attack on the arbitral process and, regrettably, the battle lines have been drawn.”
The association represents roughly 2,700 federal lawyers, whose duties include acting for the government in courts and tribunals; staffing legal units in a myriad of departments and agencies; acting as counsel for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada; and helping cabinet draft legislation and regulations on a host of issues.
The arbitration tribunal under the Public Service Labour Relations Act awarded overtime pay in the lower classifications of the department’s law groups and established a regime of “exceptional leave with pay” of five days or more for senior lawyers required to work “excessive hours.”
As of May 10, 2010, the new salaries range from $59,845 to $85,381 for members of the lowest law group category other than articling students. In the highest law group category, lawyers will receive between $155,371 and $189,471.
The award for travel and meal allowances follow Treasury Board directives covering other public servants, says Marco Mendicino, acting president of the association.
The clothing allowance requires Treasury Board to reimburse lawyers up to $1,200 for a complete set of court clothing as long as they have not been paid for the items in the previous five years.
Replacement clothes are to be reimbursed “where existing items are no longer serviceable,” and the department’s lawyers are also entitled to a reimbursement of up to $100 for the cost of a new courtroom shirt each year.
For its part, the association’s application for judicial review is asking the Federal Court to reduce the implementation period for the overtime component of the award to 90 days from the 120 days set out by the arbitrator.
“On our reading of the act, he exceeded his jurisdiction,” says Mendicino.
“The Public Service Staff Relations Act essentially states the implementation period for any arbitration award has to be 90 days, save and except on consent of the parties,” he adds. “We’re saying, in that one-month span, many lawyers could work significant overtime. That’s the rationale.”
He notes the association is saving its discontent with other aspects of the award over overtime until the next round of bargaining for a subsequent collective agreement. The union had objected to several areas, including the fact that on any day when actual hours worked are more than 7 1/2 but less than 8 1/2, the lawyer shall be deemed to have worked 7 1/2 hours.
“I know of no precedent anywhere for such clause,” the association’s nominee to the arbitration panel wrote when the award was released.
While the government’s request for judicial review covers several areas, Mendicino says the association’s application is direct and limited.
“The remedy for us is quite straightforward,” he says. “If we prevail, and we have every hope and optimism that we will prevail, it will allow those hard-working lawyers who put in excess hours over the course of four weeks to start claiming that compensation earlier than they are allowed to right now.”
A spokesman for Treasury Board was unable last week to reach legal or departmental representatives to comment on the court actions.