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More New Zealanders eligible for legal aid

More New Zealanders eligible for legal aid

The number of people eligible for legal aid will increase from 765,000 to some 1.2 million following the implementation of a Legal Services Amendment Bill that passed its third reading in parliament today.

"The Legal Services Amendment Act 2006 introduces long overdue reforms meaning many more New Zealanders on lower incomes will be able to afford legal representation for civil, family and criminal matters," Justice Minister Mark Burton said.

"The changes demonstrate the Government's commitment to ensuring access to justice ought not to depend on the ability to pay," he said. "They also aim to ensure that people seeking public assistance genuinely need it and will contribute to the cost where possible."

Under regulations to be made under the bill, the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid, which have not been reviewed since 1987, will be updated. Income thresholds for civil cases will be based on gross income and adjusted according to family size. For example, a family of two adults and one child will meet the criteria on earnings up to $36,371. The current equivalent level is $19,060. Income thresholds will also be inflation-indexed in future.

"In order to extend eligibility to a wider section of the population and to ensure that those receiving legal aid take into account the cost of proceedings, a new repayment and debt management regime will also be introduced," Mark Burton said.

Under the new legislation, a higher proportion of legal aid recipients will be required to repay some or all of their grant. Those in this category will increase from 8000 currently to 22,000, with the value of repayments rising from $10.8 million to $24.6 million per year.

"Those people seeking legal aid who can afford to part-fund or repay their costs, will be encouraged by the changes to weigh-up the benefits of proceeding with their case in the same way as those who have to meet their own legal costs in full."

"In addition, criminal and civil legal aid recipients will now be treated the same for repayment purposes, which will result in more criminal legal aid recipients contributing to their legal costs," Mark Burton said.

The bill also introduces changes that improve the transparency of legal aid granting in the form of simplified financial eligibility and merits criteria. The improved administration of this expanded legal aid scheme is supported by a new repayments regime and improved debt management tools for the Legal Services Agency.

The bill requires the Legal Service Agency to undertake, from time to time, a review of its rates of payment in respect of legal services provided by listed providers on a contract for services.

"Justice Ministry and Legal Services Agency officials will consult with the Law Society when any review is undertaken. I have previously indicated that such a review may be timely following the bill's implementation and could include other provider issues such as quality assurance schemes."

It is hoped that the implementation of the bill will be completed in early 2007. The passing of the Legal Services Amendment Act is the latest of several legislative changes aimed at improving accessibility to, and the responsiveness of, the Justice system for all New Zealanders. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act, which was passed in March aims to improve confidence and enhance competition in the legal services industry.


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