Pay cut for legal aid providers

Media release – for immediate use

31 May 2009

Pay cut for legal aid providers

“While we appreciate that the Government is operating in a very difficult economic climate, it is extremely disappointing that it has chosen not just to freeze but actually to reduce the remuneration rates for legal aid lawyers,” New Zealand Law Society President, John Marshall QC, said today.

“This will make it even more difficult for people to find a lawyer offering legal aid services – at the very time when there is likely to be an increased demand, particularly in such areas as family and employment law, as people face stresses caused by the recession.

“In a budget announcement about legal aid funding, the Minister spoke about maintaining access to justice for those unable to afford their own legal advice and representation, and said the Government was guaranteeing equality before the law and natural justice for everyone.

“Yet the Budget actually reduces the allocation for legal aid providers. Many lawyers had already withdrawn from undertaking legal aid work because it was uneconomic and this will further undermine their ability and willingness to take such cases.

“This is all the more frustrating when you take into account that legal aid remuneration rates increased last year for the first time in 12 years. We do not know of anyone who has had to wait 12 years for a pay increase and then had it cut the following year,” John Marshall said.

He was responding to the Budget announcement that the Legal Services Agency would receive $9.9 million of interim funding (on top of its standard allocation) to help retain legal aid providers, a drop of nearly $1.3 million from the equivalent allocation last year.

The 2008 Budget provided $11.174 million to fund a hard-won 10% increase in rates for legal aid providers, effectively the first since 1996. That increase was nearly 6% below that recommended by the independent panel who had reviewed the legal aid rates – and far short of covering the ground legal aid providers had lost over the previous 12 years.

“The Legal Services Agency has confirmed that this Budget’s reduced allocation will mean a decrease in the rates introduced last year,” John Marshall said.

“While we have heard of pay freezes for some people, we have not heard of anyone else who has been expected to take a pay cut. And certainly there is no suggestion that the prosecuting counsel in legal aid cases, who are already paid considerably more than defence counsel, should take a cut.

“This means that poorer people who need legal aid for representation in the courts are at a disadvantage.

“More experienced lawyers have stopped undertaking legal aid work because it is quite simply uneconomic so these people are often left being represented by those with less experience.

“That sort of imbalance between prosecution and defence experience seriously undermines access to justice and the ideal of equality before the law, and this latest move will do nothing to improve that situation.”

Noting that the allocation is again an interim measure pending the Government’s comprehensive review of legal aid, John Marshall said that in that review, the Law Society would certainly be making the point very strongly that there needed to be a much fairer balance between the rates paid to prosecution and defence lawyers in legal aid cases.

He did, however, welcome the Budget’s increased allocation for community law centres, which received a $7.2 million top up, saying: “Community law centres, a lawyer initiative, do a very valuable job and have been struggling in the face of a drop in their usual funding sources, so this allocation is very timely.”

Contact: John Marshall QC, NZLS President

Phone: (04) 499 0464 or 021 243 2812