Lawyers identify issues with legal aid assurance proposals

28 October 2010

Lawyers identify issues with legal aid assurance proposals

Remuneration, compliance costs and bureaucracy are seen by many in the legal profession as reasons why some competent and experienced lawyers are not participating in New Zealand’s legal aid system.

In its submission on the Legal Services Agency’s discussion paper on proposals for a legal aid quality framework, the New Zealand Law Society says it asked lawyers what incentives could be offered to encourage good lawyers back into the system or to convince them to stay in it.

“Lawyers said that an increase in remuneration and a reduction in compliance costs and bureaucracy could encourage more quality lawyers to participate in the legal aid system,” the Society says.

“Lawyers also said that they were concerned that in some areas of New Zealand experienced lawyers may choose not to apply for approval under the new system due to the increased compliance requirements, and past inefficiencies and frustrations with the Agency’s administrative systems.”

The Society notes its concern that legal aid providers’ morale has never been at such low levels.

“Reform fatigue is rife, and a large number of lawyers felt it was pointless for them to engage in consultation because their views would not be listened to or addressed. Lawyers in a number of areas are facing consultation on, or implementation of, numerous policy and legislative decisions at once. This includes new invoicing systems, introduction of new case assignment processes, extension of the Public Defence Service, secondary provider changes, the Legal Services Bill, and the quality framework,” the submission says.

“Most lawyers provide an exceptional level of service under the legal aid system for remuneration levels that are significantly less than market levels and to clients who, while frequently more vulnerable, are often also more difficult and time consuming than clients who pay privately.”

The Society says a number of senior and experienced lawyers have no need to be part of the legal aid system, but continue to be providers because they believe that lawyers morally owe a professional responsibility “to those vulnerable people within the justice system who cannot afford to pay privately”.

The Law Society submission says it looks forward to developing close working relationships with the Agency and the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that New Zealanders continue to enjoy the benefits of a skilled and well regulated legal profession and an efficient and effective legal aid system.

“The Society accepts that there have been legal service quality issues involving a small number of lawyers and, as indicated previously, intends to work with the Government to improve the quality of legal aid services,” it says.

Commenting on current remuneration levels, the submission states that increasing legal aid rates is a vital component of helping to ensure delivery of high quality legal aid services.

“The principle that all people are equal before the law is eroded when Crown prosecutors are paid significantly more than legal aid defence lawyers. The top rate for defence lawyers is signficiantly less than Crown prosecutors.”

The Law Society recommends that a review of legal aid rates and an increase in rates should be introduced contemporaneously with the new quality framework.

The submission also focuses on a number of other matters where the Society recommends changes or amendments to matters in the discussion paper. These include enhanced access to training courses for junior lawyers, a review of the whole legal aid scheme a year after implementation, and full testing and trial of Agency operational processes.