Survey shows worries over family legal aid

Survey shows worries over family legal aid

06 March 2014

A survey of members of the New Zealand Law Society's Family Law Section members has showed concerns at the overall economic viability of legal aid work and the difficulties this caused for lawyers' practices.

In a submission to the Ministry of Justice, the Family Law Section says 156 family legal aid providers responded to the survey.

"They expressed concern about the effect this had on their ability to hire or retain junior staff and how this would leave a significant gap in the number of family lawyers and providers in years to come," it says.

The survey also found that the user charge is proving problematic and many lawyers have to waive the user charge for their clients, which is further reducing the remuneration which they receive.

The submission makes a number of recommendations for improving the current fixed fee family legal aid system. It says that overall, the level of fixed fees for associated legal tasks are not conducive to keeping experienced family lawyers in the legal aid system.

"The experienced and committed lawyers remaining are there because they strongly believe in the importance of access to justice and the need for vulnerable people to be able to access solid legal advice."

The Family Law Section says one size does not fit all for fixed fees and the risk of the "swings and roundabouts"/"taking the rough with the smooth" approach is that it does not incentivise lawyers to take difficult cases involving personality or mental health problems.

The fees offered do not allow the training of young lawyers coming through the system and over the last few years the Family Law Section has seen a "significant drop" in the number of graduates and young lawyers hired by family lawyers.

"The lack of juniors coming through will cause serious problems in the years ahead for quality and efficiency in the family area (and the criminal area as well)."

The Section also comments that family legal aid providers have particularly suffered from "consultation and change fatigue" and they do not believe that their efforts will be genuinely listened to by the Ministry of Justice.

"They are exhausted from the work involved in providing comment on the Family Justice reforms but feel that they need to provide comment to ensure workable policies may be a possible outcome."