Change to legal aid a concern
Legal aid spending is down as measures to tighten the government-funded scheme take effect.
Since March last year, legal aid for criminal cases has been paid on a "fixed-fee" basis rather than at an hourly rate.
Meanwhile, Public Defence Service offices have been set up in New Zealand's busiest courts where its lawyers can defend people on criminal charges.
There is no service office in Palmerston North.
These changes were introduced to curb rapidly rising legal aid spending, which leapt 56 per cent between 2007 and 2011 to $173 million.
In the 2012/13 financial year, $152m in legal aid payments was made to lawyers, law firms and the Public Defence Service, down from about $165m the year before.
Legislative changes this year also tightened criteria for legal aid funding in civil cases, while the Family Court system is scheduled for a shakeup.
Not all legal aid money goes into lawyers' hip pockets. The amounts paid to individuals or firms include costs for travel and forensic tests, and expert witness fees.
Palmerston North lawyer Peter Coles last year expressed concerns about the fixed-fee model and told the Manawatu Standard his view had not changed.
He said it provided financial incentives for early guilty pleas, as opposed to taking less serious matters to a defended hearing when required.
Guilty-plea payments range from $300 to $390, while a lawyer who takes on a defended matter could get as little as $100 to $200 extra, covering up to 90 minutes of hearing time, preparation and initial court appearances.
A not-guilty plea could mean three or four trips to court, an "apple box full of documents" to wade through and long "stream of consciousness" police interviews to watch, Mr Coles said. "I don't think fixed-fees are the answer, because there is a disincentive if people aren't doing their job properly.
"There's no doubt that fixed-fees, along with a lot of other changes in the criminal justice system, have the potential to deliver expedient results rather than just results."
Changes were introduced after a damning 2009 report by Dame Margaret Bazley criticised "car boot lawyers" who worked without an office. But Mr Coles said the fixed-fee scheme could encourage such operations as lawyers battled to keep costs down.
Fellow Palmerston North lawyer Tony Thackery said he was "managing" the changes. It was harder now to make a living from criminal defence work and other parts of his firm would subsidise this.
"I'd like to put staff wages up but it's difficult to do that."
Justice Minister Judith Collins said it had taken a series of reforms by the Government to get the system "back on track".
"Five years ago, legal aid was in trouble. When National took office in 2008, we inherited a legal aid system where costs were out of control." Fixed payments for less complex cases meant there was no incentive to keep cases in the system longer than necessary.
Falling crime rates also helped to reduce spending, Ms Collins said.
"Legal aid spending remains largely demand driven - if a person is eligible, they will receive it.
"Expenditure should be as much as New Zealand can reasonably afford within a constrained fiscal environment."
AT A GLANCE
What is legal aid? A government-funded scheme for people who cannot afford a lawyer.
What is it available for? People facing criminal charges, in civil and family disputes and at the Waitangi Tribunal.
Do recipients have to pay the money back? Yes. The amount and repayment rate depends on what they earn and what they own.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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