A judge deals with a case at a court in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Photo: CFP
Most observers would assume that being a judge trumps being a lawyer. It is assumed that judges get more pay, more respect and better career prospects.
But often, this could not be further from the truth - just ask 27-year-old Wang Chi, a judge in Heze, East China's Shandong Province. The Chinese lunar new year has been the occasion for him to open a new chapter in his life. He has decided to quit his judge position in his hometown, and leave for South China's Guangdong Province to seek a job as a lawyer or legal consultant.
"As a judge, the efforts you put into the job exceed what you are paid. I work until I am utterly exhausted, but I make even less than a construction worker," Wang told the Global Times. He was earning a monthly income of 2,000 yuan($330) after three years' experience, and had resolved nearly 300 cases, or roughly 1.5 cases every day.
Wang's case is just the tip of the judicial iceberg. As a result of the low pay and intense workloads, grass-roots courts nationwide are faced with an exodus of judges.Fleeing judges
The figures speak for themselves. Courts in Beijing hired 2,053 employees between 2008 and 2012, but 348 among them resigned - equal to approximately 17 percent - the Beijing Times reported.
Nearly 2,000 judges resigned from courts in Jiangsu Province during the four years, and over 1,600 left courts in Guangdong Province. Meanwhile, cases heard by courts nationwide exceeded 13 million in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2008, according to statistics issued by the Supreme People's Court, according to the Beijing-based Legal Weekly.
The issue was also extensively discussed in the local-level legislators and political advisors' meetings which were held around the country in January.
"Judges here earn around 100,000 yuan a year, but when they change their job to work in companies, their annual salary reaches 1 million or even 2 million," Guo Xiaoming, a deputy to the Shenzhen People's Congress in Guangdong Province, was quoted as saying at the session by the Guangzhou-based Nandu Daily.
While judges are fleeing courts, Yun Ji (pseudonym) from Dazhou, Sichuan Province has just passed the judicial exam and become an assistant judge. But being a judge was never his long-term plan.
Having been a lawyer for two years, Yun is no stranger to the tough situation facing judges. He plans to return to being a lawyer after a few years, bringing all the connections he made as a judge to aid his career as a lawyer.
"I don't have any problem with lawyers' income but the job is not stable, as sometimes you have cases but sometimes you just don't. And a big problem is that if you don't have any connections, it's really hard for a lawyer to tackle a case," Yun told the Global Times, saying that there was no upper limit for his income in the past, but now as a newly-hired judge, he earns just 3,000 a month.
It isn't just low salaries driving them away.
A judge surnamed Zhang, 40, said that the assessment standards for judges can be quite subjective, as they need to carry out many duties in addition to trials, such as reconciling disputes and entering residential communities to liaise with people.
It is not only China that is grappling with the issue of judge salaries. In August 2013, former English chief justice Igor Judge warned that salary cuts and heavy workloads were dissuading senior lawyers from becoming judges, according to a report in the London-based The Times newspaper. Reasons to stay
Although the conditions faced by Chinese judges are even tougher than their British counterparts, many choose to stay.
Unlike Wang and Chi, who work in third or fourth tier cities, Zhang earns 8,000 yuan a month in Shenzhen, a much more developed coastal city, and concludes around 400 cases a year. He noted that in a city like Shenzhen, his income is not high for a well-educated veteran judge with such a high workload.
"The dignity of being a judge is diminishing as these days it's common for people who are unsatisfied with verdicts to put pressure on us. They abuse judges, send threatening letters and follow us," Zhang told the Global Times, noting that about 40 judges in his court quit in 2013.
Some became lawyers, while others went to government departments in search of a more relaxed environment.
"For my part, I won't quit. Being a judge is the most suitable job for me," Zhang said, noting that his mindset is relatively rigid after all these years working in the system and he does not have much ambition to progress economically or politically.
Wang believes many of his colleagues feel the same way, saying that they want to "die within the civil servant system" to ensure they have a stable career.Public judgment
Suggestions that the salaries of judges should be raised have met with public criticism online, as many comments indicated that the public feels judges are the same as civil servants, who have a reputation for having relaxed jobs and excessive benefits.
However, people inside the profession draw clear lines between the judicial and civil servant systems, highlighted by a recent reform proposal in Shenzhen, which was passed by local authorities in January after a decade of discussion.
The proposal suggested removing the links between judges' salaries and the salaries of civil servants at the same administrative level, and instead suggested using an individual salary system for the judiciary.
Chen Zhonglin, dean of the Law School at Chongqing University, agreed with the proposal, and said that the connection between judges' income and administrative ranks is what is causing the loss of judges at the grass-roots level.
"For now, judges' salaries should be raised by 20 to 30 percent from those of civil servants who share the same administrative ranks and a system to connect judges' professional performance with their salaries should be set up," Chen noted, saying that as a deputy to the National People's Congress, he has proposed it every time he attended the annual sessions of the top legislators.
He noted that the issue has been discussed for years, but authorities are reluctant to push it since the move may arouse discontent among civil servants, but he believes judges deserve a higher salary since they are more competitive than other civil servants.
"Raising the income is one way to increase the honor of being a judge, but people should have the right motives, instead of considering it just to be a way to earn money."