New Zealand

Justice is denied as the legal aid system teeters on the brink of collapse

In recent years there has been a 41 percent increase in the cost of legal aid. Photo / Greg Bowker

New Zealand’s beleaguered legal aid system costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year, yet tens of thousands of kiwis are still being turned away and potentially deprived of their right to justice.

Supreme Court Chief Helen Winkelmann described the legal aid system as “broken” and warned it “could collapse”, while Minister Kris Faafoi acknowledged that there are serious problems with the system.

Now the legal fraternity hopes Budget 2022 can contain the lifeline needed to bring the besieged system back from the brink.

Legal Aid is government funding for people who need a lawyer and can’t afford it. It is considered a loan and the beneficiaries may have to repay some or all depending on how much they earn and the property they own.

There has been a 41% increase in the cost of legal aid in recent years with $ 225 million spent in the year ending June 30, 2021. From $ 160 million in the year to June 2018.

Community Law Centers Sue Moroney, CEO of O Aotearoa, believes the legal aid system is broken and needs to be reviewed and replaced with a more affordable model. Photo / Natalie Akoorie
Community Law Centers Sue Moroney, CEO of O Aotearoa, believes the legal aid system is broken and needs to be reviewed and replaced with a more affordable model. Photo / Natalie Akoorie

The increase is said to be driven by more cases, which take longer to prepare and resolve, complications caused by Covid, administrative costs and stagnant remuneration rates.

While many attorneys are hoping for more funding, Sue Moroney, chief executive of Community Law Centers O Aotearoa, believes the entire system needs a complete overhaul.

Community law provides free legal support and advice to those who need it but cannot afford a lawyer but directs clients to legal aid if they need representation.

“We’re routing people into a broken system and it’s pretty soul-destroying,” Moroney said.

While more money could provide a temporary solution and entice some attorneys to return to legal aid, Moroney believed other, more affordable options needed to be investigated.

“We think it’s time to review the whole model.”

He said the cost was increasing as cases were becoming more complex due to Covid, so it took longer to prepare and resolve.

Examples included shared custody arrangements complicated by regional blocs and employment issues affected by vaccine mandates.

New Zealand Law Society President Jacque Lethbridge said 20,000 people had been turned down from legal aid in the past 12 months, which was unacceptable. Photo / Provided
New Zealand Law Society President Jacque Lethbridge said 20,000 people had been turned down from legal aid in the past 12 months, which was unacceptable. Photo / Provided

Despite the huge amount spent on legal aid, Law Society President Jacque Lethbridge said the organization’s survey of access to justice showed that 20,000 people had been turned away in the past 12 months.

“This is not acceptable to me or anyone else in the law. We need a structural change in our legal aid system, and fast,” Lethbridge said.

The survey results also showed that on average legal aid lawyers were not remunerated for half the hours they spent on their last legal aid case and 25% of legal aid lawyers at state spending expected to do less legal aid work or quit altogether in the next 12 months.

“The main reason for wanting to do less legal aid work is inadequate pay.

“Half of the lawyers surveyed rated the legal system as poor or very poor in providing access to justice for everyone in Aotearoa.

“The fact that these practitioners are not prepared to continue is indicative of a system that is in dire need of both structural change and better support.”

The increase in costs was the result of more work, Covid, and the failure to increase pay rates over the past decade, he said.

Lethbridge said the company has urged the government to introduce a substantial and general increase in legal aid remuneration in the 2022 Budget to at least stem the flow.

This included better funding for young lawyers to support seniors in legal aid, which was currently unfunded, and compounded the problem, he said.

“Because these young lawyers are the senior lawyers of the future. Probate is critical to a well-functioning judicial system.”

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi would not say whether Budget 2022 will provide additional funding for the country's troubled legal aid system. Photo / Alex Burton
Justice Minister Kris Faafoi would not say whether Budget 2022 will provide additional funding for the country’s troubled legal aid system. Photo / Alex Burton

Lethbridge said no one was immune from contact with the justice system and everyone deserved the right to access quality legal advice and representation, regardless of the circumstances.

“Aotearoa New Zealand has a proud history of wanting a justice system that ensures people are well represented; this is what is at the heart of these required changes to legal aid.”

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi acknowledged that there have been serious longstanding problems with the legal aid system.

He said legal aid is key to ensuring fairness in New Zealand’s judicial system and making sure people are not denied access to justice based on their financial means.

Improving access to justice by strengthening legal aid was a priority, Faafoi said, however, he offered no solution to the problem and would not have been attracted to any solutions contained in the budget.

National Justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith was concerned that 19% of legal aid providers who fell short of standards in a 2020/21 audit had yet to be re-examined. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Justice spokesman Paul Goldsmith was concerned that 19% of legal aid providers who fell short of standards in a 2020/21 audit had yet to be re-examined. Photo / Mark Mitchell

National Justice Spokesman Paul Goldsmith said that while the budget may include some additional funding for legal aid, he believes the focus should be on improving the provider’s capabilities and quality of service.

“We need an examination of the roots and branches – the last one was in 2009, so it’s a good time to consider all aspects of the legal aid system,” Goldsmith said.

He noted that 19% of the legal aid attorneys audited in the 2020/21 financial year were not performing to an acceptable standard but had not yet been reviewed to ensure the quality of service had improved.

“New Zealanders should be able to trust legal aid services of a minimum standard, especially given increases in public spending.”

Goldsmith said more defendants were electing the jury trial and court cases were taking longer, which was inevitably increasing the hours spent on each case.

Whanganui attorney Chris Wilkinson-Smith says the legal community is pondering what can be done if the budget doesn't address the dire situation of the legal aid system. Photo / Bevan Conley
Whanganui attorney Chris Wilkinson-Smith says the legal community is pondering what can be done if the budget doesn’t address the dire situation of the legal aid system. Photo / Bevan Conley

Whanganui attorney Chris Wilkinson-Smith said the legal profession would be looking at this week’s 2022 Budget with great interest to see if there are funds set aside to repair the failed initiative.

“There is already significant debate among the profession about what steps can be taken if the government doesn’t respond,” Wilkinson-Smith said.

The hourly rate for legal aid attorneys varies between $ 92 and $ 159 depending on the gravity of the allegations and the attorney’s experience, says the Justice Department website.

Wilkinson-Smith said rates have remained virtually unchanged over the past two decades, and while this was bad for lawyers, it was even worse for those seeking quality representation.

“These rates have not been adequate to reflect the costs of paying for staff, rent, fuel, insurance. Most of these expenses have more than doubled in 20 years.

“The fees for legal aid and the bureaucracy of seeking legal aid have seen a mass exodus of willing lawyers.”

Wilkinson-Smith said the price of administering the system combined with an increase in the volume of disclosure provided to defense attorneys, forcing them to spend more time reading a file and preparing the case, are contributing to the increase in the cost of the defense. legal aid.

“The increase in the volume of disclosure forces defense lawyers to spend much more time reading a file.

“This is due to the exponential growth of digital data collected by the police, for example the data collected by the National Intelligence Application database (NIA) of the police grew tenfold between 2014 and 2020.”

He received weekly calls, from all over the country, from people seeking a lawyer for legal aid as civilian legal aid had almost disappeared in many smaller towns.

Various bodies of legal professionals raised the same questions, detailing the dire statistics and calling on the government to act, he said.

Justice is denied as the legal aid system teeters on the brink of collapse

SourceJustice is denied as the legal aid system teeters on the brink of collapse

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