Law Society seriously concerned at legal aid fixed fee level

The New Zealand Law Society says it retains serious concerns at the impact which the announced fixed fees for criminal legal aid will have on the quality of legal services.

Commenting on the rates released by the Ministry of Justice, Law Society President Jonathan Temm says they are so low that senior, quality lawyers will be unlikely to continue to undertake criminal legal aid work.

“We are quite aware of the economic pressures the government is under to cut expenditure. However, all New Zealanders need to recognise that there are some serious consequences for our criminal justice system with the fee levels as proposed. This is not about a bunch of lawyers worried about a drop in income: instead, the focus is on maintaining a system which ensures access to justice for those whom Dame Margaret Bazley described as amongst the most vulnerable in our society.”

Mr Temm says the rates announced are inadequate to enable lawyers to meet their professional and contractual obligations. The Law Society was consulted while the ministry considered fee levels, but the timeframe was extremely short and meant detailed analysis of the underlying economic data was not possible.

“The rates were already very low as they are based on 1998 payment rates, and the drop of 5% from the original consultation paper is ridiculous in 2011 economic terms. We firmly believe that the data used by the ministry is flawed. It is clear there has been insufficient analysis and consideration given to the adequacy of the rates,” he says.

This is the exact opposite of what Dame Margaret had recommended occur. She recommended that remuneration rates be adjusted up to meet the current market and she wanted experienced lawyers to stay involved in legal aid delivery.

“Because the rates are so low, there will be a fundamental impact on quality and focus of lawyers who continue to provide legal aid. The Law Society regulates the legal profession and we have to say we are very worried that the fees will put some lawyers at serious risk of breaching professional obligations.”

Mr Temm says some recent developments already show how the landscape is changing for people who need financial assistance for legal representation. The number of litigation funding companies in operation is increasing, with the latest entrant saying one factor for its establishment is a radical scaling back of legal aid in New Zealand.

The English government has also decided to delay plans to introduce major cutbacks in legal aid funding as a result of widespread opposition and evidence of the impact it would have.

“A recent major survey of legal salaries carried out by the Law Society and legal recruitment company Momentum also found that lawyers working in legal aid were increasingly concerned about the negative impact that legal aid changes will have on their client service levels and income,” Mr Temm says.

“New Zealanders have a right to be proud of the justice system we have in this country, but we have to put everyone on notice that slashing legal aid fees is going to cause real harm to the integrity of that system and to the Bill of Rights guarantee of effective legal representation.”