Statement on legal aid - New Zealand Law Society
1 December 2009
New Zealand Law Society – statement on legal aid from President John Marshall QC
The New Zealand Law Society takes the issues raised in Dame Margaret Bazley’s review of legal aid very seriously but it is concerned at the imbalance in the reporting of her findings.
The thrust of much of the coverage has been her statements that a small but not insignificant number of criminal legal aid lawyers are "gaming the system". There has also been considerable reference to allegations of a corrupt practice of top-up payments made to some legal aid lawyers.
The impression is that this applies to all lawyers doing legal aid, and that is untrue and most unfair.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the Law Society is very concerned about these statements in the report, and the specific allegations relating to the Manukau District Court. Indeed, I will be visiting that court tomorrow to discuss the situation.
However, the statements are based on anecdotal evidence and the Law Society needs those involved in the justice system and members of the public who may be aware of any such practices to provide that information to its national Lawyers Complaints Service (freephone 0800 261 801).
We can then use that information to deal with these matters through our complaints process. The standards committees dealing with complaints have lay members as well as lawyers, and all complaints will be thoroughly and professionally investigated. If corruption is established in any case, the Law Society would be asking the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal at the Ministry of Justice to strike off the lawyer concerned.
In addition, the Law Society is working on an interim proposal that we want to provide to the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Agency for consideration. That proposal is intended to address the concerns expressed by Dame Margaret around ‘duty solicitor issues’ and ‘car-boot lawyers’, and the general quality of counsel.
However, I do want to stress that the great majority of criminal legal aid lawyers are highly competent lawyers and persons of integrity who provide a high quality service to their clients in very difficult circumstances and for inadequate remuneration. It is grossly unfair for them to be tarred with the same brush as the comparatively small number of lawyers Dame Margaret refers to as the problem.
For many members of the public, their contact with a legal aid lawyer is for family matters. There is no similar criticism in the report of family lawyers who, again, do a thoroughly competent and professional job for their clients.
The Law Society is determined to fix the quality issues surrounding legal aid providers. It will work with the Legal Services Agency and Government to do this as quickly as possible.