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Government proceeds with improved legal aid bill

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
Media Statement

24 March, 2000

Government proceeds with improved legal aid legislation

The Government has decided to proceed with the Legal Services Bill to ensure that the public gets the best return possible from the money spent on legal aid, Justice Minister Phil Goff said today.

"Access to justice is a fundamental principle underlying our justice system and provision of legal aid. The need to assist people with very limited means is the justification for the taxpayer spending about $100 million in funding legal aid services over the last year.

"This is a very significant level of expenditure and one which has grown rapidly over the last decade.

"It is important, therefore, that legal aid services are delivered consistently and efficiently. It is clear that there have been real problems, including poor expenditure control, inconsistent decision-making and processing backlogs. Changes must be made. The system must be accountable and cost effective," Mr Goff said.

"Reform in legal aid will progress in two legislative stages. The first Bill currently before Parliament reforms administration of legal aid. The second later this year will address questions relating to eligibility.

"The current Bill which sets up the Legal Services Agency will now come into effect on 1 October 2000. From that date, the Agency will be responsible for granting all family and civil legal aid, granting criminal legal aid for appeals to the Court of Appeal, and will take over the role, currently undertaken by District Subcommittees, in determining conditions for grants of criminal legal aid in complex proceedings.

As an interim measure and subject to administrative guidelines from the Agency, Court registrars will continue to process most applications for criminal legal aid until 30 June 2001. From 1 July 2001, this function will also be transferred to the Legal Services Agency. The transfer of functions to the Agency is being staggered in order to ease the transition to the new system.

Further changes relate to funding and accountability of the Community Law Centres that play an important role.

"The Legal Services Agency will carry out regular assessments of community legal needs to ensure that Community Law Centres are adequate in number, appropriately located and accountable to the community they serve. In making these assessments the Agency will consult with the Public Advisory Committee, community representatives, and special interest groups in the case of special interest Centres."

Mr Goff also confirmed that, until the reviews of the Law Practitioners Act 1982 and legal aid eligibility are completed, the Law Society Special Fund will only fund Community Law Centres. Education and research activity will be funded by the Legal Services Agency from interest revenue on its financial reserves.

The second stage of the legislative reform relates to eligibility criteria.

Mr Goff said, "conducting the review of eligibility criteria later this year allows time for a careful examination of the issues and provides an opportunity for public consultation. The review will include an examination of the Coalition’s election policies to extend legal aid to groups for environmental proceedings, and of the recommendations made by Law Commissioner, Joanne Morris in her report on Women’s Access to Legal Services.

"Any legislative changes arising from the eligibility review are likely to take effect in mid-2001," Mr Goff concluded.


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