More than 20,000 people were turned away by legal aid attorneys in one year, according to new research from the Law Society of New Zealand.
“Aotearoa New Zealand’s legal aid system is collapsing,” said Law Society President Tiana Epati. “Legal aid lawyers cannot cope with the lawsuit, they are too poorly paid to handle the complex cases they have, so they leave the legal aid system.”
Epati said vulnerable people were missing justice because they couldn’t get legal assistance and couldn’t afford lawyers.
He said he knew of a parent who was unable to obtain legal help seeking custody of his children, so he had stopped trying to represent himself.
“Common people are accessing a system but not justice.”
The investigation comes after the highest-ranking member of the judiciary, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winklemann, told RNZ last month that the legal aid system was “broken and could collapse if nothing is done to respect”.
Released today, the investigation, which surveyed 3,000 attorneys, was conducted by Colmar Brunton on behalf of the Law Society.
Three-quarters of the legal aid attorneys who participated in the survey said they had to turn away people seeking legal aid because they did not have time to serve the client or because their firm had reached the maximum number of legal aid clients it had. . could afford.
Legal aid attorneys were twice as likely as other attorneys to have rejected 11 or more clients in the past 12 months.
Nearly a quarter of lawyers currently doing legal aid work said they planned to quit or accept fewer clients in the next 12 months.
The most cited reason was that remuneration for legal aid work was inadequate. Hourly rates for legal aid work have not changed since 2008 and are about half of what a Crown Prosecutor or independent attorney receives.
The investigation also showed that lawyers were not paid for all the hours they worked.
“It revealed that legal aid lawyers worked for free about half the time they spent on their last legal aid file,” Epati said.
He said the tension on the Maori and Pasifika legal aid lawyers was “particularly immense.” Lawyers working in Maori and Te Tiriti or Waitangi law spent almost twice as much time providing free legal services (on average) than most lawyers.
“Legal aid attorneys who identify themselves as Pacific peoples are also more likely to have performed legal aid work in the past 12 months and are working longer hours; 54 hours a week compared to 50 hours for aid attorneys legal and 47 for all lawyers “.
Other reasons for quitting or reducing legal aid work included the very stressful job and the administrative burden.
The survey also highlighted a difference in the number of approved legal aid providers and those who were taking cases. Of the 482 attorneys approved to perform civil legal aid work, only 164 were actively accepting clients.
Covid-19 had made existing problems worse, Epati said. About 47,000 court cases have been postponed since the last shutdown began.
She said the backlog from last year’s closing was cleared by the goodwill of legal aid attorneys.
“This year, in the face of an even greater delay and an overburdened and exhausted legal aid group, the goodwill of the lawyers has been exhausted. It is not very clear how or by whom this mountain of work will be tackled.”
The legal aid system is supposed to be reviewed every three years.
The latest review in 2018 raised several issues, including remuneration. No changes were made as budget funding to make the changes was not secured.
The 2021 review was canceled by Justice Minister Kris Faafoi as he said he would not add any new information.
He met with the Law Society last week to discuss the report and asked officials to find ways to reduce the administration of legal aid.
“The remuneration of legal aid attorneys was identified as an issue in a review of legal aid environments in 2018, but significant additional funding is required to address this issue. That work would be subject to budget processes and in context of other spending demands facing the government in relation to New Zealand’s response to the Covid pandemic. “
Epati said time was running out to resolve the problem and high-level lawyers were “calling it quits” in the legal aid system.
He said there was a need to review established fees and hourly rates, as well as funding for junior attorneys to support senior attorneys.
“Therefore, since the budget for the next financial year is being set, I ask the government to act quickly.”