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New Accountability and Innovation For Legal Aid

Media Statement By
Tony Ryall
Minister of Justice

1 August, 1999

New Accountability and Innovation For Legal Aid

"Legal Aid spending will be capped by a two-stage plan which will see the granting of legal aid centralised, and eligibility reviewed", Justice Minister, Tony Ryall, said today.

Sweeping changes proposed by the Government today will see Court Registrars and District Subcommittees of mainly lawyers losing the responsibility for granting legal aid. Instead the Legal Services Board will take control of the granting of legal aid.

The Government also proposes trialling bulk funding and a public defenders office in a plan to stop the legal aid budget ballooning over $100m next year. Tough new audit procedures are also planned.

"The Legal Services Board has endorsed the plans.

"A sustainable and effective legal aid system will be the result of the Government's plan to bring new accountability and innovation to the provision of legal services.

"The announcements made today, and the decisions yet to come, will ensure that New Zealanders who are in need of legal services continue to have access to them.

"It is essential that we have a legal aid system in which New Zealanders have full confidence.

"Since 1993 the bill for legal aid has ballooned from $59 million to $94 million this year, and is expected to grow still further without decisive action from the Government.

"Taxpayers need to know that sort of money is being spent wisely and is going to help those people who really need it.

Reform Of Legal Aid Administration

"The Government will make major reforms to the administration of legal aid in order to provide greater consistency in decision-making, increase accountability, improve collection of legal aid contributions, and give better control over the budget.

"At present there is no direct relationship between the Legal Services Board, the body responsible for controlling the legal aid budget, and the people making decisions on who gets legal aid.

"Applications for criminal legal aid are currently decided by Court Registrars.

"Civil legal aid applications are decided by local subcommittees.

"Over the years these voluntary subcommittees have done an outstanding and invaluable job in administering legal aid. They deserve the thanks of all New Zealanders for their efforts.

"Now, rapid increases in work loads and demands on committee members are making it increasingly difficult for them to find the time necessary to examine applications in detail. And, frankly, it's not fair to ask volunteer lawyers to continue doing so.

"The granting of legal aid will be controlled by the Legal Services Board taking over the current role of Court Registrars and District Subcommittees. District Subcommittees will no longer be necessary.

"We want to see the rules applied consistently from Northland to Southland.

Bulk Funding of Legal Aid Services

"The Government wants to introduce innovation to legal aid. The Legal Services Board will trial bulk funding law firms to provide legal aid services for a district and/or field of legal work such as family law or criminal law.

"Similar schemes have given good results in Australia and the idea is currently being considered in Britain.

"In Australia this approach has improved legal aid by reducing delays in obtaining representation, providing specialist representation, and giving more control over quality.

Trial Public Defenders Office

"Public defenders provide cost effective, quality legal representation in many jurisdictions around the world.

"The Government has decided to fund the Legal Services Board to trial a Public Defenders Office in New Zealand.

"The trial will establish whether a Public Defenders Office can provide effective representation while reducing costs to the taxpayer. Decisions about the location for the trial are yet to be made.

Increasing Cost Contributions

"Over the next few months we will be considering options for increasing revenue in addition to the improvements that will flow from tighter administration.

"In particular we will be looking for ways that recipients of criminal legal aid, who presently make very small contributions, can be asked to increase their share.

Step Two : Review of Eligibility Criteria

"The Government will commence a broad review of the eligibility criteria for legal aid.

"Included in the review will be considering ways we can help people get justice without necessarily ending up in Court. Such measures might include increased funding of mediation to resolve disputes without the need to engage lawyers.

"The review will commence later this year, but it is not expected to be completed until the first quarter of next year. This timeframe will allow full consultation with legal and community groups.

"The Government remains committed to a network of Community Law Centres, and we will also be considering their future funding.

Implementation

"Step One of the Government's plan for legal aid will require substantial legislative amendments to the Legal Services Act 1991.

"I anticipate legislation will be introduced to the House by the end of the year, with implementation of the reforms commencing in the next financial year.

"Funding of legal aid will remain constant under the Government's plan. There is no intention to reduce current budget allocations.

"Any additional costs associated with the new administrative functions will be met from savings made through efficiency gains. Independent advice suggests these savings will be substantial", said Mr Ryall.

ENDS

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