Government moves on legal aid

  • Simon Power

Cabinet has moved to implement a raft of recommendations on the legal aid system, just three weeks after Dame Margaret Bazley's review was released.

Justice Minister Simon Power said Cabinet looked at issues relating to the administrative arrangements for legal aid, the assessment of eligibility, and the procurement and provision of legal aid services.

It agreed to:

  • Disestablish the Legal Services Agency (LSA) and shift responsibility for the administration of legal aid to the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice.
  • Establish a Statutory Officer who will have responsibility for granting legal aid and managing cases by the Public Defence Service.
  • Replace the Legal Aid Review Panel with a Legal Aid Tribunal administered by the ministry.
  • Work on a streamlined eligibility and administrative scheme for lower-cost cases, to reduce costs associated with granting legal aid and compliance costs for legal aid providers.
  • Expand the PDS into Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, and Christchurch.
  • Trial other models of service provision, including tendering and contracting with senior lawyers.
  • Make provision for the ministry to determine criteria for accreditation of lawyers as legal aid providers, and establish panels to consider accreditation. 

Mr Power said Cabinet was concerned at what Dame Margaret found and wanted to move quickly to ensure confidence in the legal aid system was retained.

"Dame Margaret unearthed some very worrying problems, so it was extremely important the Government move quickly.

"And we have. Within three days of Dame Margaret's report, Cabinet agreed that a further review of the quality of legal services and the disciplining of poorly performing lawyers be made in two years' time instead of three as she recommended.

"I also announced that retired High Court judge Sir John Hansen will head a new-look board.

"Legal aid services are vitally important to our most vulnerable citizens, and the changes I am making will allow those using these services, as well as those providing them, to be proud of our legal aid system.

"Dame Margaret found that the legal aid system is facing serious challenges which threaten its viability, and that there were failings on a system-wide level.

"These moves show how serious Cabinet is in getting this right."

Mr Power said the decisions will be implemented by legislative change as soon as possible next year, and funding will be sought for their implementation. The Government will be considering Dame Margaret's remaining recommendations, and Mr Power intends taking further recommendations to Cabinet in March.