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ACT MP Wins Tighter Controls For Legal Aid

Sunday 1st Aug 1999
Patricia Schnauer
Media Release -- Justice

After a five-month campaign for tighter controls on legal aid ACT Justice Spokesman Patricia Schnauer has today welcomed Government plans to reform the legal aid system but says there are major issues that still need to be addressed.

"Reform of legal aid is vital to restore public confidence in the legal aid system and to ensure it doesn't buckle further under the anticipated 40% increase in cases next year.

"If the legal aid system is run properly it will save taxpayers millions of dollars.

"I am very pleased that the Minister has accepted my recommendations to restructure the Legal Services Board, abolish the lawyer-run District Legal Aid Sub Committees, put the granting of both civil and criminal legal aid with the Legal Services Board and to trial a public Defenders office.

However, Patricia Schnauer said she is disappointed that the Government is still not doing enough to get legal aid repaid.

"Of the $40 million paid in civil legal aid in 1998, only $2.3 million was recovered through legal aid charges. Less than 6 %. Only about 1% of people receiving civil legal aid are required to make a further contribution beyond the initial payment of $50. Charges are imposed in only around 15% of cases."

"In criminal legal aid there is little provision to recover any costs at all. That is wrong and should be changed. If a guilty person is offered a fully taxpayer funded defence of their case with an option of getting off at the end, of course they are going to run a trial. It clogs the Courts, holds up genuine cases and is wrong.

"An accused person who knows they are guilty would think twice if they had to pay some part of the costs themselves and only run a defence if there were genuine grounds for doing so.

"We are dealing with large sums of taxpayers money and Government has to make sure that not only is it being spent properly but also where Government can recover any payments it should do so.

"Lawyers should not be able to charge clients huge fees initially, then when their client runs out of money apply for legal aid. This just denies the Legal Services Board the opportunity to recover any money on behalf of the taxpayer.

"Legal aid should be a loan, not a gift. New Zealanders who have a true and genuine case must always be able to take that case to Court. But, while legal aid remains a taxpayer-funded gift, legally aided clients and their lawyers will continue to leave the metre running.

"We require students who do not have any money to take out loans in order to fund their education. Similarly, legal aid should be viewed as a loan to fund people to take Court action which would otherwise be unavailable to them.

"I am also calling on the Minister to set up a Task Force to review the entire legal aid system. The Task Force should be responsible for reporting on issues like eligibility; contributions to be paid by legally aided people and charges to be taken and should report back to the Minister within six months," said Patricia Schnauer.

Earlier this year Patricia Schnauer made public the case of a Chinese millionaire businessman who was granted more than $46,000 in legal aid to defend charges of cheating at Auckland's Sky City Casino.

In April, Patricia Schnauer exposed a legal aid system out of control with the legal aid budget set to blow out at a massive $100 million. She also raised concerns at the lack of checks and balances within the system.

ENDS

For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.


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