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Legal aid review – NZ Law Society response

The New Zealand Law Society comments on the legal aid review report follow.
27 November 2009

Legal aid review – New Zealand Law Society preliminary response

The following statement is made by the President of the New Zealand Law Society, John Marshall QC

The New Zealand Law Society welcomes Dame Margaret Bazley's final report on improving the legal aid system. While we have yet to consider it in detail, we can say that we are delighted that it reflects much of our own position on the subject, as expressed in our comprehensive submissions to the review.

The report’s recommendations have the potential to improve the legal aid system significantly, and therefore access to justice. And for the Law Society and the profession generally, that is the crucial aim of the review.

Like Dame Margaret, we want to see a legal aid system that is efficient and where legal aid is provided by experienced and competent lawyers. We will work with the Government and its agencies to ensure that outcome is achieved.

We are delighted that a more robust accreditation and review process has been recommended to help with standards; the Law Society proposed this and we look forward to helping implement it.

The society is also concerned about any lawyers who may not be performing adequately.

Improved regulation of lawyers, introduced as at 1 August last year, included a national lawyers complaints service, and that is the appropriate mechanism for handling these sort of issues. However, we do need concrete evidence, and not just anecdotal reports, to initiate the formal complaint process.

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Also, we do note, as does the report, that the majority of lawyers providing legal aid are working conscientiously and provide a good standard of service, and that lawyers, particularly senior ones, need to be remunerated properly to encourage them to participate in the system.

In addition, the Law Society has been working on the issue of improved competency assurance since well before even Dame Margaret’s draft report was released. In September, its Board adopted new competency assurance measures, including a requirement that new barristers have three years’ experience before they can practise on their own account.

This should help meet much of Dame Margaret’s concern, as she has particularly identified junior sole practitioners when she has spoken of the lawyers causing concern.

The Law Society has long been concerned about the spiralling cost of administering legal aid so we welcome the recognition of the need for change in the way legal aid is administered.

It is also pleasing that the importance of taking early opportunities to help break the cycle of offending has been recognised, as has the fact that court processes are not always the best method of resolution for some problems. We hope the opportunity this report raises in those regards will not be lost.

While we agree that bulk funding can be appropriate for some legal aid work, we would be concerned if it was to dominate the private provision of these services so we will be looking for more detail on how the bulk funding recommendations might work. It is important that the contracting systems and remuneration help retain and attract competent lawyers, and Dame Margaret’s comments recognise that.

Similarly, we are pleased that while she recommends expanding the Public Defender Service, Dame Margaret is also committed to retaining private provision as this is a cornerstone of access to justice, giving clients choice and providing an alternative where there is a conflict of interest.

In general, the Law Society very much looks forward to working with the Government and its agencies to implement these recommended improvements in the best way possible.


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