Legal aid under pressure

    Criminal Bar Association president and lawyer Fiona Guy Kidd QC fears for the future of legal aid professionals in the region.

    A SOUTHLAND lawyer is worried thousands of vulnerable people are struggling to find a legal aid lawyer to represent them.

    The Criminal Bar Association president and Invercargill lawyer Fiona Guy Kidd QC fears the situation could get even worse soon.

    A survey released by the New Zealand Law Society shows 75% of legal aid lawyers have had to turn away people seeking legal assistance in the past year.

    It also shows 35% of lawyers in Otago and Southland intended to do less or no legal aid work during the next 12 months.

    Mrs Guy Kidd believed the survey highlighted the huge strain legal aid lawyers had found themselves in, during the past few years.

    Most felt motivated to provide people with access to justice and felt a moral duty to do so, however, legal aid provision in its current state was not sustainable, she said.

    Poor legal aid remuneration, the excessive legal aid administrative workload, and the stress involved with this type of work were among the reasons for this dissatisfaction.

    “What came through from this survey was that, actually, enough is enough,” Mrs Guy Kidd said.

    “Legal aid lawyers are deciding they can’t keep doing it at those rates.

    “They are going to leave legal aid or they are going to do less.”

    During her 29-year career, she had always managed her time to conciliate her legal aid work with her other clients.

    However, the hourly rates for legal aid professionals were last adjusted back in 2009, she said.

    The survey also says 81% lawyers have provided some form of legal assistance for free in the past 12 months and nearly half of them have provided free legal assistance to individuals who could not afford to access the legal system.

    “It has been 13 years and inflation has increased significantly since then. The cost to run a law practice has also increased, so it [the rates] is just completely out of sync with other professions and it is becoming unaffordable.”

    Another concern was legal aid lawyers were ageing and not being replaced in equal numbers.

    In Southland, there was only one PAL 3 (who deals with offences where the penalty was more than 10 years) listed lawyer under 60, she said.

    While the police were doing more to divert people out of the system at the lower end, the serious end of crime had not decreased and something needed to be done to attract more professionals to the area, she said.

    Many people were having to self-represent in hearings due to the lack of legal aid lawyers, which could cause a miscarriage of justice and could also put even more pressure on the justice system.

    Mrs Guy Kidd and other lawyers across the country were calling on the Ministry of Justice to acknowledge the survey and make a change.

    She hoped the ministry could secure more funding next year so rates could be adjusted for inflation.

    This would also enable lawyers to be paid for the administrative work they did – which she said was not now being financially compensated – and also provide funding for senior lawyers to take junior professionals to be with them on trials and important hearings.

    “Currently there is no support in the system to train young lawyers and they are part of the future.

    “We need to ensure there is a succession of lawyers because my fear is no-one will want to do criminal legal aid and the most vulnerable people will be the ones suffering.”