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Legal Aid Bill Passed

The Legal Services Bill which passed its third and final reading this evening will ensure that the public gets the best return possible from the money spent on legal aid, Justice Minister Phil Goff said today.

The Bill overhauls the administration of legal aid through the establishment of a new Legal Services Agency. The changes will take effect on 1 February 2001.

"Access to justice is a fundamental principle underlying our justice system," Mr Goff said. "No New Zealander should be denied legal representation solely because of their inability to pay.

"We spend $100 million annually upholding that principle. Legal aid increased in cost alarmingly during the 1990s. It is important, therefore, that legal aid services are delivered consistently and efficiently.

"The present system, which relies primarily on volunteers, is no longer adequate. Despite the valuable work contributed by the vast majority of the volunteers involved, the system has suffered from inconsistent decision-making, poor expenditure control and serious processing backlogs.

"The volunteers will now be replaced by a professional agency, the Legal Services Agency.

"The Labour Alliance Government has made a significant change to the structure of the new Legal Services Agency proposed by the previous government. It will now draw on the major strength of the subcommittee system - that is, local knowledge - through the establishment of a network of regional offices.

"The Select Committee has also recommended that the Agency should be able to establish local consultative groups to advise on the general delivery of legal aid.

"This extra source of advice complements that offered by the Public Advisory Committee and together they will ensure that the Agency will be responsive to local needs.

"Reform in legal aid will progress in two legislative stages. This Bill reforms administration of legal aid. A separate exercise next year will address questions relating to legal aid eligibility criteria," Mr Goff concluded.

ENDS

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