Budget 2023 released last week included mention of funding for the legal aid system. These announcements reflect the Budget 2022 increase of $148.741 million across four years: Budget 2023 has not made any further investment in remuneration for legal aid providers. Changes to eligibility and repayment settings are those announced in May 2022, and these took effect on 1 January 2023.
Approximately 93,000 more people are now eligible for legal aid. The Law Society strongly supports measures to improve access to justice, and in many cases, access to a lawyer is an essential part of this. However, there are significant legal aid provider shortages across the motu, that appear to be growing. Without further investment in remuneration and the development of junior providers, the Law Society is concerned there will not be enough legal aid providers to assist those additional 93,000 individuals.
Last years’ increase to the hourly rate of remuneration for legal aid was an important first step, however it is not sufficient to begin repairing a system that is risking failure under increasing stress. Improving the remuneration and conditions for legal aid work is essential for the retention of existing providers as well as attracting new lawyers into the legal aid regime. Liz Bulger has been convenor of the Law Society’s Legal Services Committee since 2011, and is clear that underinvestment in the legal aid system is not a new problem:
“However, COVID-19 has exacerbated backlogs in the court system and as a central part of our justice system, this issue won’t be resolved without the hard work of legal aid providers across all jurisdictions. The current state is unsustainable, and these pressures may well contribute to a further reduction in the number of lawyers who can provide legal aid,” she said.
Provider shortages are particularly acute for family legal aid, and may continue to worsen. In the Law Society’s 2021 Access to Justice survey, 25 per cent of family legal aid providers indicated they intended to do less legal aid work – or stop all together – primarily because of low remuneration.
Family Law Section Chair Lauren Pegg is aware that in many regions individuals are having to approach multiple family lawyers and are often not able to find one with capacity to help.
“These are complex, personal, and often highly stressful situations that people are trying to navigate. In the interests of all parties, they cannot be expected to do this alone,” she said. “The legal aid system faces challenges that cannot be addressed through minor adjustments. If we are to maintain a sustainable and effective legal aid system, a full review is required. We urge the Government to commit to this.”
The Law Society’s advocacy for improved access to justice continues
Like legal aid providers, duty lawyers are critical to ensuring access to justice in Aotearoa New Zealand. They provide timely and necessary legal advice to unrepresented defendants and are key to the efficient operation of the District Court and improving access to justice. Their remuneration has not significantly increased since 1998, and the duty lawyer service received none of the additional funding announced in Budget 2022.
In April this year, Law Society President Frazer Barton wrote to the Minister of Justice, conveying the Law Society’s ‘grave concern’ that duty lawyer work had become unsustainable for lawyers, risking serious impacts on defendants, victims, and the criminal justice system as a whole. The Minister of Justice's response can be read here. A review of the duty lawyer scheme is upcoming, and the Law Society will participate in this.
Frazer is committed to continued advocacy for legal aid providers and duty lawyers:
“The Law Society will continue its evidence-based advocacy for the benefit of our legal aid providers. More recently, we have initiated work to understand the current costs of practice for lawyers in Aotearoa New Zealand. This information will provide further evidence around the necessary level of remuneration for legal aid providers and will be a valuable source of information for the wider profession.”