More than $3 million was paid to Nelson law firms for legal aid work during the past financial year, with five companies pocketing almost three-quarters of the total.
However, lawyers from those companies say poor repayment rates for legal aid work, and the difficulties associated with civil and family legal aid cases, prevent many firms from taking it on.
The Legal Services Agency increased repayment rates to lawyers by 10 percent in July, the first increase in 11 years.
The biggest legal aid earner in Nelson was Zindels Lawyers. While Steven Zindel is overseas and was unable to comment, lawyer Michael Vesty said the firm saw itself as a "legal aid firm" and did little private work.
He said many lawyers saw low hourly rates for legal aid work - sometimes half as much as they would earn for private work - as a disincentive.
Mr Vesty said lawyers often had to do a lot of "legwork" for the Legal Services Agency and were not paid for the work they had done with clients the agency chose not to fund.
Bamford Law principal Tony Bamford said his legal aid earnings had increased in the past year, as he had taken on more cases in general, including legal aid cases.
He said Nelson did not have many senior lawyers, so those who were here ended up with more complex trial work, which led to larger legal aid bills as defence lawyers spent more time on increasingly complex cases.
Rising numbers of serious drug cases, often involving huge volumes of material and data from phone calls and messages, meant more work for lawyers.
Mr Bamford said the increase of 10 percent to legal aid repayments was long overdue, as lawyers had been receiving the same payment that crown lawyers had received in the late 1980s.
He believed the same resources should be available to the defence and the Crown.
"There are people at the end of the line in these cases, and potentially there can be some serious injustices."
Sole practitioner Mark Dollimore, the second-highest earner on the list, described himself as a "legal aid lawyer" and said he believed he did more court work than any other lawyer in Nelson.
He said he thought some firms did not want to do legal aid work, particularly family court work, because of the low pay rates, but the job was about social responsibility.
"Despite the stress of a high-volume turnover, I believe I'm well paid for what I do."
Mr Dollimore said the legal aid system was a good one because it gave people who could not otherwise afford lawyers the representation they deserved.
"Legal assistance should not be just for the rich."
Lawyer Brett Daniell-Smith said family legal aid work was the hardest work to do, as it was taxing and not well paid, but firm lawyer Fiona Emery did a large amount of it.
Trying to gain remuneration for family legal aid work was a lengthy process compared with that used for criminal cases, and this put many lawyers off, he said.
Lawyer John Sandston of McFadden McMeeken Phillips said low legal aid rates would discourage lawyers from "hanging in there", as their rates should be the same as those paid to the Crown.
Crown lawyers were paid more per hour and more hours per case, and also had pay rises more often than once every 11 years, he said.
Nelson's top five legal aid earners:
Zindels Lawyers, $569,206.91.
Mark Dollimore, $282,436.90.
Daniell-Smith and Co, $239,538.25.
Bamford Law, $221,243.35
McFadden McMeeken Phillips, $170,712.23
Total paid to firms in NZ: $125,563,056.93.
Does Nelson deserve to be classed as a city?Related story: (See story)