New Zealand Law Society - Legal Aid - Good Practice Themes

Legal Aid - Good Practice Themes

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Legal Aid Services published High Quality Legal Aid Services – Good Practice Themes from Audits on 31 August. This report presents overall results from audits of legal aid lawyers undertaken between 1 July 2014 and 30 June 2015. The full report and a summary are available on the Ministry of Justice website. LawTalk interviewed Michele McCreadie, General Manager, Legal Aid Services, about the report.

What is your view of the quality of legal aid services?

The majority of legal aid lawyers are delivering high standards of service and ensuring New Zealanders have access to justice, which is the overall purpose of legal aid. Their clients are well represented and are receiving good quality legal aid advice, from both legal aid lawyers working at the private bar and salaried lawyers employed by the Public Defence Service.

What evidence do you have?

Our annual programme of quality and value audits provides solid evidence for assessing the quality of legal aid services. Last year we conducted 67 audits of legal aid lawyers which found 85% were delivering services to an “acceptable” level or above. Our auditors are experienced legal aid lawyers, who have considerable practical knowledge and experience.

Why is the report called Good Practice Themes?

The report focuses on the 31 audits with “excellent” and “very good” results. We chose to focus on those because we wanted to provide positive feedback to the legal profession to acknowledge and reinforce evidence-based good practice.

Our Provider Services team undertook a qualitative analysis of those audit reports and found recurrent good practice themes.

What prompted this report?

We made a commitment to publish the overall audit results in our recent consultation, which was part of the May 2015 review of the provider audit and monitoring policy.

What are the good practice key themes?

There are six good practice themes – two relating to outcomes for legal aid clients and the others about high quality processes.

We called the first theme best possible outcomes for clients. For example, one report noted a case where the client benefitted significantly from a change of plea, with a reduced charge. It was a situation where the lawyer had difficulty getting witness briefs, but their perseverance paid off and a not guilty verdict was achieved. In criminal legal aid, auditors noted good use of the sentence indication process as a means to help resolve charges and achieve good sentencing outcomes. In family legal aid there was good use of alternative dispute resolution processes to achieve outcomes or agreements for clients, often without recourse to the courts.

The second theme is about meeting the needs of clients and other people using the justice system. Clients were handled appropriately according to their individual needs and characteristics. By skilfully representing vulnerable people and working well with others such as the courts and the Police, legal aid lawyers are helping the justice system to operate smoothly, fairly and efficiently.

The third theme was quality legal advice and representation that accurately identifies the legal issues. Auditors commented that the lawyers had carefully identified and analysed the legal issues and exercised good judgement. They interpreted cases in a holistic way, managed their clients effectively, were well-prepared and professional.

The next good practice theme was clear and appropriate communication tailored to the client. Lawyers kept their clients advised of progress “every step of the way” and provided easily understood written communications. Where appropriate, there were regular discussions with clients, for example in relation to ongoing negotiations and obtaining instructions and clear records were kept.

Another important theme was that value for money was demonstrated and proportionate. There was a link connecting the fees charged, the invoices and time records submitted to Legal Aid and the work undertaken and finally the use of systems to send accounts to us in a regular and timely fashion.

The final recurrent theme was sound office systems and record keeping to support the lawyer’s business. Efficient office management systems, including time recording and case checklists, help to drive a legal aid case towards completion. The auditors were pleased to see many examples of clear, comprehensive case records including good file notes. Any lawyer uplifting a file would have no difficulty in assessing the state of proceedings.

How do audits of legal aid providers work?

Our auditing is based on reviewing selected case files and records which are handled on a strictly confidential basis. For each lawyer, we select seven completed legal aid cases that cost at least $1,000, for a variety of case types.

The process is an overall judgement of the quality and value of the legal aid services provided by the lawyer. Audit results range from excellent to very poor. They are reviewed by our Provider Services team who recommend any follow-up actions under delegation from the Secretary for Justice. Quality assurance of legal aid lawyers is kept separate from granting legal aid and assigning cases to legal aid lawyers, which are decisions made by the Legal Services Commissioner. This distinction adds rigour to our process.

To what extent to do audits of records and files actually indicate quality of services delivered?

While some auditors commented that it can be difficult to assess actual courtroom performance from case files, they were able to identify good quality legal research that was reflected in appropriate advice to clients. Much of a lawyer’s work today depends on high quality written submissions and this was evident in the case files.

How are providers selected for audit?

Lawyers with a high legal aid caseload in comparison to others are selected for audit using a statistical tool based on a combination of factors, including high legal aid earnings. We look at the records of substantiated complaints and previous unfavourable audit results and this has an influence on who is selected. Lawyers who attain good audit results are generally removed from the pool.

We acknowledge that auditing 4.5% of the 1,665 lead providers each year is a relatively low proportion but we counteract this by taking a targeted approach.

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