The cost of justice: legal aid bill $1 billion

MICHELLE COOKE
Last updated 05:00 03/05/2012

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New Zealand has spent a billion dollars on legal aid since 2000, with the five most expensive criminal legal aid grants on cases either discharged, or where the defendant was found to be innocent.

They were complex cases – all were homicides, and in each case legal aid played a crucial role in serving up a better quality of justice.

The accused – Murray Foreman, Chris Kahui, Zion King and David Bain – had some of the best lawyers in the business, Law Society president Jonathan Temm said.

But he said the "best lawyers" had moved away from legal aid because they were so frustrated by recent changes.

"Injustices are clearly going to result and the Government has been told," he said.

Government spending on legal aid has more than doubled in the last decade, growing from just over $75 million in 2000/01 to $169m in the 2010/11 financial year, the Justice Ministry said.

Mr Temm said he wasn't surprised that the most expensive grants were given to cases which resulted in not guilty verdicts, as it was an expensive process to defend a highly complex case.

Some people would think it was money well spent, while others would argue it was a waste, he said.

While the five most expensive criminal grants may have been provided to defend people who were found innocent or had their cases discharged, the next five resulted in guilty verdicts, or their case for an appeal was rejected.

The largest family legal aid grant since 2000 was for $219,000 and the largest civil grant for $533,000 – it was a claim for compensation over a fatality, according to the ministry.

Anyone who receives legal aid may be required to repay some of the costs, but in practice, most people who receive criminal legal aid are not required to make repayments.

A raft of changes to legal aid have been instated or proposed. They include the introduction of fixed fees, changes to eligibility criteria and more active management of high cost cases, which would require lawyers to provide estimates before starting work.

The Law Society has expressed its dismay at the changes, saying the fixed rates are so low there will be a "fundamental impact on quality and focus of lawyers who continue to provide legal aid".

This means lawyers who have done legal aid work for a long time have stopped, so those facing charges now have a much smaller pool of lawyers to draw from.

"People think this is a brighter way forward, but really it's just about the money. It's all about policy and procedure, but it's not about the people and the outcome," Mr Temm said.

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- Fairfax Media

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