3 Jun 2016

Govt's $96m legal aid boost questioned

7:43 pm on 3 June 2016

Legal aid lawyers do not believe the government's biggest top-up to the courts in more than a decade will help the people who need it most.

Police cars outside Wellington District Court on Tuesday 17 November

A police car outside the Wellington District Court (file) Photo: RNZ / Teresa Cowie

They, and community law centres, have been crying out for more funding for years.

Promising a $96 million boost to legal aid over four years as part of last week's Budget, Associate Justice Minister Simon Bridges said he had listened.

The funding included $17.2 million to increase eligibility for civil and family legal aid.

"Civil and family legal aid helps people apply for protection orders, agree on parenting arrangements, settle employment disputes, and access many other types of court proceedings.

"Increasing eligibility will help 2700 additional New Zealanders each year by 2018/19."

Simon Bridges during caucus run 1.03.16

Simon Bridges Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The extra money would lead to fewer people having to represent themselves, and the whole system would be more efficient, he said.

Community law centres would receive a $4.3m boost, which Mr Bridges said would maintain their annual support level of about $11m.

"I think that is going to give them a real confidence to get on with the important work they do in the community and what we may also see is a better ability to plan over time - perhaps share services with other community law centres."

However, Canterbury Law Centre manager Paul O'Neill said the "top-up" effectively meant their funding stayed the same as it was now.

Centres around the country were buckling under the pressure of more people coming through their doors, Mr O'Neill said.

That was leading to people struggling to find legal aid lawyers, he said.

"There's obviously a connection there with family violence - if people can't get things like protection orders, or are struggling to, that's a big failing.

"We've had people come into our reception here who have called around 12 practitioners for example and not found anyone, or have been referred to lawyers by us and rebounded back."

Criminal Bar Association president Noel Sainsbury said many lawyers were walking away from this type of work because of a freeze on the fees paid for it.

"It remains unremunerative compared to other forms of legal work, not withstanding it's probably the most important and difficult legal work to do," he said.

"What the government relies on is the goodwill of the criminal lawyers who are committed to doing this work and making the system work, but this is not a good long-term way of running things."

Fewer younger lawyers were signing up, he added.

'I teach the Law Society's Introduction to Criminal Law course - it's a prerequisite for doing legal aid - over five years ago, you would have had 80-120 lawyers doing it every year, now we have about 35 and half of those are people doing prosecution work or working for government departments."

People often struggled to find lawyers when they came to court, while the lawyers who remained committed to legal aid work were stretched to their limits, he said.

However, lawyers' fees were not taken into consideration in the Budget, said Mr Bridges.

"That hasn't been a factor in this decision, this has very much been about the end users and low income New Zealanders who need legal aid."

Another issue is the eligibility limit - a single adult must earn less than $22,000 a year to apply for legal aid.

Many earning slightly more than that were not able to afford private representation, said a senior family lawyer, David More.

"There are people who should be able to get legal aid but they can't and are falling through the cracks. Any increase in legal aid is a good thing," he said.

"Legal aid is important because it's a service to the public. The court is my workplace and it's foreign ground to most people. It's important that we're available and that anyone who goes to the court has access to a fair hearing."

Mr Bridges said the change in eligibility for civil and family legal aid would help address that.

He said on top of the total $96m boost for legal aid, $14.7m was also being added to the Legal Services Commissioner's budget to help with administration.