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Simon Power Speech: Opening of the Wellington Public Defence

Opening of the Wellington Public Defence Service

Good afternoon.

I'd like to acknowledge fellow MPs and members of the judiciary and the legal profession for being here today to mark the opening of the Public Defence Service in the Wellington region.

This PDS branch will service district courts in Wellington, Porirua, and Lower Hutt, as well as the higher courts, including the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

It is also from this location that the Public Defender for the southern region will ultimately lead the expansion of the PDS into the South Island.

Over the past two-and-a-half years I've had the privilege of opening a number of PDS branches, but this one's particularly significant as it's the first to open south of the Bombay Hills.

And that is truly a testament to just how far the PDS has come since it was first trialled back in 2004.

The PDS is designed to deliver an in-house, high-quality legal aid service through the use of salaried staff rather than contracted lawyers.

And, two independent evaluations of the PDS pilot at the Auckland and Manukau courts in 2007 showed that it was achieving its goal.

The evaluation found that:

* Stakeholders, including the judiciary, prosecutors, and court staff, noted the quality and preparation that PDS lawyers demonstrated in their cases, and pointed in particular to the mentoring and training opportunities that senior PDS staff are able to provide to junior lawyers.
* The flow of PDS cases through the court system led to a two-thirds reduction in jury trials, with savings in court time estimated at $400,000, not including prosecution cost savings.

* The PDS produced savings compared with the estimated cost of equivalent private provision.
* The PDS maintained or improved the quality of legal services as measured by three indicators - client experience, case handling and outcomes, and stakeholder perceptions.

* Most importantly, the independent evaluations found that cost savings were achieved with no difference in outcomes for clients, as measured by overall conviction rates.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to make it very clear that I see the PDS as playing a vital role in the new legal aid system we are developing in response to Dame Margaret Bazley's report of 2009, which expressed concern about the quality of legal aid services.

The Government's response to that report is detailed in the Legal Services Bill which is due for its third reading in Parliament in the near future.

But quality is not the only issue facing legal aid.

Legal aid expenditure has grown substantially in the past decade - so much so that it's now forecast to result in a $402 million gap between forecast and baseline legal aid expenditure over five years.

We cannot continue to ignore the substantial cost pressures the system is facing, which is why I'll soon be announcing a package of proposals to get the legal aid growth curve back under control, while ensuring continuing access to justice.

Ladies and gentlemen, 2011 will be an exciting year for the Public Defence Service, with it bedding in in Wellington and establishing itself in Hamilton.

As I have outlined, legal aid is facing some very real challenges but it's a pleasure to be here today to mark the opening of a service which I see as very much part of the solution.

Thank you.

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