Legal aid changes, back to front
The Government is capping legal aid and introducing bulk-funding on a trial basis, based on mis-leading information at best and no information at worst. This is hurried legislation in election year that risks chucking the baby out with the bath water, Alliance spokesperson on justice, Matt Robson said today.
'There needs to be a full enquiry first into how the legal aid dollar is spent, who uses legal aid, where savings can be made. Instead the Government prefers to stab in the dark by rushing ahead to cap the budget before it has the full picture.
'No-where else in the state sector is tax-payers money so unaccounted for. Where are the client surveys that tell us which lawyers are doing a good job and which aren't? Where are the quality controls?
'Rather than waiting to do those surveys, Minister of Justice Tony Ryall wants to trail bulk funding of legal firms now, which will unfairly influence any surveys and make it even harder to keep track of how the legal aid dollar! is spent.
'The government has been peddling mis-leading information about the legal aid budget anyway. In fact there hasn't been a massive blow-out. In 1991 $71 million was spent on legal aid. This year it is projected to rise to $94 million.
'The New Zealand Law Society has established that in fact the Government only had to find $3 million extra to cover the 1998 budget - hardly a blow-out.
'That increase was inevitable after law changes that saw domestic violence cases brought to court more often, the changes in the Land Transport Act and new bail legislation. Most of the budget has gone not on criminal cases but on civil cases.
'The projected spending for 1999 is just over $32 million on criminal cases and just over $50 million on civil cases (excluding GST).
'On average, users of legal aid are women on the DPB with one or two children, or mental health patients who must have their cases re-assessed in the courts at least twice a year. Those are the people who are ! likely to suffer as a result of capping the total budget.
'Unfortunately the Government has tripped over itself in its eagerness to please in election year, and done everything the wrong way round: they want to cap and bulk fund first, and only then do an enquiry to find out what's wrong with the system, and perhaps then increase funding to community legal services. It's back to front.' said Matt Robson.