9 October, 2012
Better balance for legal aid legislation
Justice Minister Judith Collins has today announced changes to the Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill to incorporate the benefits gained by reforming the Family Court.
In February this year, the Government asked the Justice and Electoral Select Committee to defer its consideration of the Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill until after the completion of the Family Court review, which was announced in August.
Ms Collins says it made sense to align the Bill with the reforms underway in the Family Court, so that decisions arising from Family Court reforms could be taken into account.
“Our Family Court reforms have enabled us to take a more moderate approach to reforming the legal aid system.
“Changes have been developed that affect all Court users equally, rather than only legally aided people. So, we now have a better range of solutions to ensure our legal aid system is sustainable,” Ms Collins says.
Original proposals in the Bill – which was introduced to Parliament in August 2011 – included limiting eligibility for legal aid, the reintroduction of user charges for some family and civil legal aid cases, and charging interest on legal aid debts.
The changes to the Bill announced today include:
- Reducing the proposed user charge for civil and family cases from $100 to $50.
- Changing the point at which legal aid debts will begin accruing interest. Interest will now be imposed six months after the total debt is finalised, rather than immediately.
- Removing the proposal to tighten the financial means test for less serious criminal cases, such as theft, assault or careless driving.
- Retaining the current definition of disposable capital in the means test.
- Keeping the existing approval frameworks for lawyers who can provide lawyer for the child and youth advocate services, rather than creating new criteria and standards.
- Retaining the list of types of proceedings eligible for legal aid in the Legal Services Act. This means changes to the list must be made by Parliament, rather than the Executive.
Additions to the Bill include a new provision that would prevent people who are not meeting their required legal aid debt repayments from receiving further legal aid for civil and family proceedings until they start repaying their existing debt.
“Legal aid expenditure rose from $111 million in 2006/07 to $173 million in 2009/10 – an increase of 56 per cent. Of the outstanding debt established since 2006, about $35 million is unsecured or not subject to a repayment plan. The Ministry of Justice will step up its efforts to recover this outstanding legal aid debt.
“Our changes ensure the Bill strikes the best balance between targeting legal aid to where it is needed most, encouraging more people to resolve minor family and civil matters between themselves rather than through the courts, and ensuring people have access to justice services,” Ms Collins says.
The changes to the Bill are included in a Supplementary Order Paper that will be referred to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.
The Select Committee will also be asked to rename the Bill to the Legal Assistance Amendment Bill to reflect the changes announced today.
The Legal Assistance Amendment Bill will have its second reading later this year.