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Reform Needed To Deal With Legal Aid Blowout

Urgent Reform Needed to Deal with Expected 40% rise in Legal Aid Cases

ACT Justice Spokesman Patricia Schnauer is calling on the Minister of Justice to immediately announce his reform package to restore public confidence in the legal aid system and to ensure it doesn't buckle further under the weight of the flood of anticipated cases next year.

Patricia Schnauer challenged Justice Minister Tony Ryall when he appeared before the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee recently to explain this year's legal aid budget.

"The 1998/99 year was budgeted to cost $93.96 million. Yet despite a 40% increase in applications for the 1999/2000 year projected, $93.96 million was still the budgeted figure.

"Either the Minister is proposing radical reforms or the budgeted figure is unrealistic and unattainable," said Mrs Schnauer.

In a six-page letter to Tony Ryall, Patricia Schnauer has set out the reforms that are needed to get the legal aid system under control. Top of her list is to give the Legal Services Board control over who is granted legal aid how much they get. She wants Court Registrars and lawyer-run District Legal Aid Sub-Committees dismantled and replaced with adequately qualified people to make legal aid grants for both criminal and civil proceedings and to monitor and enforce quality control in the payment of fees.

"Legislative amendments to the Legal Services Act 1991 could be introduced to the House to give effect to these proposals almost immediately. Quite clearly, if the Minister is serious about not exceeding the appropriation of $93.96 million, Government should act quickly in this regard.

""The Minister also needs to get on with wider reform of the legal aid system.

Patricia Schnauer is recommending that a Task Force be set up to review the entire legal aid system. "The Task Force should be responsible for reporting on issues like eligibility; contributions to be paid by legally aided people and charges to be taken and should report back to the Minister within six months," she said.

Patricia Schnauer also wants those who get legal aid to pay it back. "The initial contribution should be set at the full cost of legal aid, proportionately reduced on a very strict criteria."

"We require students who do not have any money to take out loans in order to fund their education. Similarly, legal aid should be viewed as a loan to fund people to take Court action which would otherwise be unavailable to them."

Mrs Schnauer also wants the names of those lawyers and recipients of legal aid to have their names published.

"Proper systems must be put in place to ensure no opportunity for the abuse of legal aid in the Waitangi Tribunal process."

"While the vast majority of lawyers act honestly and with integrity in the use of legal aid monies, there are others who do not. This small group detracts from the overall worth of the scheme and proper safeguards should be put in place to ensure those lawyers are removed from the system. If this does not occur we will see a continued proliferation of civil litigation and defended criminal matters which have been brought about by the ready availability of legal aid."

"The fact that legal aid costs taxpayers up to $100 million is only part of the story. The cost to the State in prosecuting criminal matters and the cost to non-legally aided civil plaintiffs and defendants would vastly exceed the $100 million legal aid bill. The Minister must act urgently to remedy these matters," said Mrs Schnauer


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