Region owed $1m for legal aid

DEENA COSTER
Last updated 05:00 04/12/2013

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Almost $1 million of criminal legal aid debt is owed in Taranaki, but there are hopes a new collection campaign will help reduce the amount.

From March next year, 8 per cent interest will be added to outstanding legal aid accounts, following legislation passed in July, which also tightened up eligibility criteria to the fund.

Legal aid is a Government-funded scheme that pays for a lawyer for those who cannot afford one and where one is needed in the interests of justice.

Funding is available in the criminal, family and civil jurisdictions and assessments are made at the time of application about whether it will be approved and whether it needs to be paid back.

In July, Justice Minister Judith Collins said the changes aimed to make the legal aid system more affordable.

"It's important to ensure legal representation is available to those who cannot afford it but also that public funds spent on legal aid are done so efficiently and effectively," she said.

A total of $939,701.34 is outstanding in Taranaki. Of that, about $690,000 is related to matters heard in the New Plymouth District Court and $243,000 to matters in the Hawera District Court.

A further $308,000 in legal aid debt related to both courts has been written off since 2007.

Taranaki Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Service manager Vonny Roche said they often assisted people at the New Plymouth court to fill in legal aid forms.

"We usually mention that legal aid, if granted, does have to be repaid and I have noticed most people do seem to be aware of this," she said.

Debt can be written off if people would suffer serious hardship through repayment or the cost of enforcing the debt would exceed the amount of the debt itself.

Legal Aid Commissioner Nigel Fyfe said people who owed legal aid were encouraged to get in touch with the Ministry of Justice.

"It's important to make sure we have the right information so that we can actively engage with people to properly manage their debt repayments," Mr Fyfe said.

Money can be paid back directly from wages, or via Work and Income New Zealand. People who owe legal aid debt can contact the Ministry of Justice on 0800 600 090.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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