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The Legal Aid Conundrum

The Legal Aid Conundrum - Millions Spent, But Still Not Enough LawFuel -

The Law Jobs and News Wire The release of the legal aid earnings for lawyers in New Zealand shows the massive amounts going to firms and barristers, but raises questions about the manner in which the figures are presented - and how much the scheme costs to administer.

Lawfuel.co.nz released figures provided by the Legal Services Agency (LSA), showing a total of over $88 million to over 1200 lawyers and law firms in the last six months of 2007 alone.

Top earning law firm was Kensington Swan over the six month period, with over $1.3 million, with Wellington's psychiatric claims lawyer Sonja Cooper taking a top spot consisistently over recent years.

Although issues may be raised about the direction in which some legal aid funding is made, the key question for legal aid lawyers is the legal aid payments, notwithstanding the millions spent. And one of their key gripes is the amount spent on the administration of the scheme, as well as the way figures are portrayed.

Legal aid internationally is creating major issues for lawyers who handle the work, with a boycott of the UK Legal Services Commission's new contracts this year. Lawyers in the the UK have even spoken of striking over the new contracts they are expected to sign.

In New Zealand legal aid rates have also been the subject of contention, given that the rates have not been adjusted since 1996. The base rate is $95 an hour. Although the LSA recommended a 16 per cent rate rise to $191 an hour for senior lawyers (inclusive of GST), which remain at well under current commercial rates for senior lawyers, let alone rates actually stipulated as being appropriate by the High Court in Solicitor General v. Panzer in 2001. The proposed rate rise is considered entirely inappropriate by lawyers.

The issue with the figures issued by the LSA is that the figures fail to identify actual costs incurred by legally-aided lawyers, such as other fee earners working in barristers' chambers, for instance, together with disbursements and GST.

Further, the figures released do not reflect the actual amount incurred by the LSA's administration, which is considerable and growing. The last accounts reveal administration costs approaching $19 million, excluding legal aid payments.

The issue has come to light on many occasions in recent years, most recently with the David Bain retrial, where the defence lawyers have consistently requested additional funding to deliver a proper defence and deal with the mountain of additional, let alone existing paperwork and evidence required to be considered.

The routine for applying to the LSA is intensely time-consuming - that is, costly. This is particularly the case when expert evidence is needed. However, even basic legal aid applications require considerable time and effort.

The legal aid list can be downloaded from www.Lawfuel.co.nz at Legal


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