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Crown Solicitors' "Honesty System" of Billing in Review

Crown Solicitors' "Honesty System" of Billing & Other Matters Feature in Review of Prosecution Service

LawFuel.co.nz - Law Firm News, Law Jobs - Crown solicitors have been spared the axe by Government after a review of the prosecution services opts for the status quo and criticises the "honesty system" by which Crown Solicitors charge their time.

The review, ordered by the Government to see whether it was getting value for money for a service that is unique in the legal world for being essentially operated by private law firms, reported to Government last month with recommendations for improvements in the way in which Crown Law oversees the service, as well as seeking greater transparency and realism in the billing structures used. It is the second major review of the privately operated Crown prosecution service, after the 1990s review by the Law Commission, which also opted to retain the current system using the Crown solicitors' network.

The report's author, John Spencer, said that although there was not "systemic" there was a clear need to ensure there was neither over-charging, nor under-charging, both of which had occurred with Crown solicitor fees.He also noted that the service was "heavy" in senior prosecutors, which affects costs with a "proportionately greater" billing rate as a result.The 'honesty system' billing is weighted by the seniority of the solicitors charging and the poor management by Crown Law and Government departments who often have no real idea about the costs of prosecution.
Given that prosecution services, including Police and other prosecutions, cost the taxpayer $75 million a year, it’s surprising that the Spencer report received virtually no media coverage.The international trend has been strongly towards centralized, public prosecution.



The Crown Solicitors’ budgets have continued to swell, partly in the face of increased indictments. The Government is intent on cutting the costs of bureaucracy largey through the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill, which may have been the Crown Solicitors’ saviour.
It was CPRAM that is set to reduce prosecutions and, logically, prosecution costs. Among the Spencer Report findings:

* A lack of proper management and poor data management by Crown Law
* Unrealistic charge out rates* Weak competition for work
* A lack of control of the Crown solicitors' skills mix
* A renewed focus upon 'cost' as a factor in prosecutions in terms of public interest factors

One of the issues regarding cost factors is the obvious tendency towards the development of monopolies.
"These have the potential to create a situation where the purchaser needs the provider more than the provider needs the purchaser.
This power imbalance can prove costly in the long run," Spencer says in the report.The report pointed out that the Solicitor-General's oversight of summary prosecutions, as distinct from indictable matters, was "very weak" with considerable confusion among enforcement agencies as to the Solicitor General's role.Government’s increased tendency to rely on ‘outside’ legal advice has seen a greatly increased expenditure on advice. The report shows the figure relating to prosecution advice in the 2009-10 year to be $5.5 million.
And many government agencies really have no clue how much prosecutions will cost.

In fact, cost is not a recognized factor in determining whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The report recommends various improvements, such as far better oversight of summary prosecutions by the Solicitor General, better cost controls and data collection, and clearer decision-making among others.

Spencer observed that public interest considerations get shifted from office to office, avoiding the overall public interest. Further, there is a solicitor-client relationship, which alters the context of a true, public interest prosecution service.

Cases may be incentivised to be prolonged due to ongoing fees and the review notes that the lack of financial controls and lax controls generally makes the Crown Solicitors’ largely an “honesty system” in terms of pay. Billing needs to be more “transparent and realistic.”


ENDS

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