When the Ministry of Justice completed its last triennial review of the legal aid policy settings at the end of 2018, we identified operational improvements needed to reduce the administrative burden and improve the service for providers and other participants. Two years on from the review it is timely to reflect on what changes have been made to accomplish these goals and what we want to do next.
The Ministry has made a number of changes since the review to improve the provider experience and make it easier for people to engage with us, all of which have been made possible by the feedback and collaborative efforts of our stakeholders and legal aid providers.
Timeline of recent work on legal aid
- January 2019: Mental health provider roster implemented in Auckland
- March 2019: Junior counsel pre-approved for Court of Appeal & Supreme Court hearings.
- April 2019: Review of high cost case policy. New amendment to grant forms.
- July 2019: New invoice forms implemented.
- January 2020: Mental health provider rosters implemented in Wellington.
- March 2020: Legal Aid Services make policy and process updates in response to COVID-19. Legal Aid Services implement an electronic operating model.
- June 2020: Changes implemented to the 0800 2 LEGAL AID number.
- August 2020: Improvements implemented to the approval and contract processes for providing legal aid services.
- December 2020: Trail of nationwide police detention legal assistance roster.
Ongoing and upcoming 2021
- Post implementation review of the mental health rosters.
- Review of quality assurance processes.
- Review of the police detention legal sssistance scheme.
- Duty lawyer service review.
- Provider coverage review.
In the first half of 2019 we reviewed and updated our high cost case policy, streamlining the management of expensive and complex criminal cases. Changes were made to our Amendment to Grant forms, combining what was eleven forms into three, to mirror legal aid applications, and to our invoicing forms to make them easier and quicker for legal aid providers to complete.
We have made various policy changes to recognise our changing environment and the additional challenges that providers face, such as amendments to our travel policy.
The next phase of work was to review, in 2019, our provider application, approval, and contracting process.
An early change to come out of this review was to streamline the process for Queen’s Counsel to apply to become legal aid providers.
A year on in, August 2020, we launched a new application form and supporting guidance for all lawyers who want to apply to provide legal aid. The new simplified form has made it easier for lawyers to obtain approval and has resulted in processing times reducing from 5-8 weeks to around 15 working days.
At the same time, we made changes to our contract renewal and reapproval process. Legal aid lawyers’ contracts are now combined with the application form and approval documentation. Contracts and approvals also no longer expire, removing the requirement for providers to reapply for approval every few years.
My hope is that these changes will encourage more lawyers to apply to become legal aid providers, ensuring that we have a robust pool of providers now and in the future to ensure no one is denied access to justice because they can’t afford a lawyer.
We are currently in the second phase of this work, which will focus on making improvements to our audit and quality assurance processes.
The last year has not been without its challenges. Prior to 2020, we had already been gearing up to move away from paper-based processing and streamline internal processes to pave the way for an electronic operating model.
When we moved into Covid-19 alert level 4 in March last year, we moved quickly to the electronic model within 72 hours. This enabled us to continue to provide the service with minimal interruptions while keeping our staff safe.
Whilst the implementation of our model has not been perfect and there is still more work to do, we have seen significant improvements in timeliness across all aspects of our work.
Our focus for the future continues to be improving and streamlining our processes. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future to achieve our goal of delivering a modern service that works based on the needs of those who use it.
Tracey Baguley is Manager, Legal Aid Services at the Ministry of Justice.
A word from the Legal Services Commissioner
It has been over two years now since I started serving as the Legal Services Commissioner. I am pleased to say that during this time we have been able to make continuous improvements to the administration of the legal aid service, making it easier for our customers and for providers to engage with us.
In the last year alone, we have introduced a number of changes, such as updating policy to provide further opportunities for junior counsel to gain experience in Court of Appeal and Supreme Court hearings.
After feedback from legal aid providers, we also made changes and provided clarity on other policies, such as DNA testing in the family jurisdiction and policy that has seen legal aid being made available for applications under section 67 of the Parole Act 2002, ensuring that legal aid is available to those who need it.
As Tracey mentioned, the last year also saw Legal Aid Services transform swiftly when needed in response to Covid-19. At short notice a number of changes were able to be made to our current policy and processes to allow providers to continue to work safely and remotely where needed. We also focussed on paying invoices as quickly as we could during this time.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our legal aid providers for their patience and understanding during the time of uncertainty last year. Your continued commitment to providing legal aid services during this time was greatly appreciated.
Legal Aid Services has come a long way since I started as the Commissioner and I am proud of the accomplishments we have made, but there is still more to be done.
A key area of focus for me this year will be a review of the Duty Lawyer Service. It has not been reviewed for some time and so it is important that we define what this service needs to be so that it is fit for purpose for the future and our policies can be refreshed.
The changes over the past two years would not have been possible without the feedback and help of the legal profession.
I look forward to continuing to work with you all in the future as we continue to modernise and improve legal aid services to ensure continued access to justice for the people of Aotearoa.
Brett Dooley is the Group Manager National Service Delivery at the Ministry and Legal Services Commissioner.