New Zealand Law Society - Legal aid developments

Legal aid developments

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One year on – changes to the delivery of legal aid services

By Sarah Turner

It has been just over two years since I finished serving as Legal Services Commissioner. When the Ministry of Justice reviewed the legal aid administration system in 2016 it saw opportunities to consolidate into a single national approach.

Now, a year since we completed changes to the way legal aid granting and debt collection is administered, I am in the position of being the Legal Services Commissioner again, this time temporarily. This is a great opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved so far and look ahead to changes that are still to come.

The Legal Services Commissioner is responsible for making sure the legal aid system delivers timely access to justice for those who are eligible, and that it does so consistently. We recognised that the previous way wasn’t working; that processes that had built up over time were inefficient for providers, customers and the ministry. We also recognised that we needed to start to build a modern platform for future ways of working so that delivery can continue to evolve and respond to contemporary demands.

Benefits starting to show

A year on from the full implementation of the changes, we are starting to see the benefits. Consistent decision-making was at the forefront of the changes and we continue to work to safeguard equal access to justice by ensuring uniform processes and decisions are applied to all cases, regardless of location. This is giving providers greater dependability around the outcomes of customers’ applications.

In the drive for national consistency, we saw where our own processes were creating unnecessary work and churn for all involved. While making changes has been challenging at times, we are now seeing and addressing issues faster than before.

The recent combining of the civil and family legal aid application forms is a good example of this. Where applicants previously had to complete up to three forms, just one, simpler, form is now all that we require.

Similarly, we have combined and simplified criminal application forms into one.

In both cases we consulted with providers first to understand what would work and what wouldn’t.

Importantly, as well as being more efficient for providers, the forms have made applying for legal aid easier for customers at what can be a challenging time in their lives.

Improving working with providers

Over the past 12 months we have looked at ways to improve how we work with providers and how to lower compliance costs. We have reviewed the rates for Police Detention Legal Assistance service providers, resulting in an increase in the remuneration rates. We have implemented changes to the criminal fixed fee schedules to better align with the flow of work required in a criminal proceeding. And we have changed the travel policy for duty lawyers to allow them to claim for non-local travel time and consulted on the mental health roster review.

We know that to meet customers’ service expectations we need to keep building on what we’ve achieved so far. Achieving national consistency has given us a solid platform to do this and we look forward to continuing to work with you.

Sarah Turner is the Group Manager Commissioning and Service Improvement at the Ministry of Justice. She was the Legal Services Commissioner 2015-2016 and is temporarily filling that role.

One year on – focus on the future

By Tracey Baguley

One year on from the implementation of the new operating model it is timely to reflect on what has been a busy period of change in legal aid services.

The consolidation process, which involved the setup of our offices in Takapuna and Wellington and the embedding of a new organisational structure, has provided us with clear visibility on where we needed to focus our attention.

Feedback from customers and providers told us that the system was bureaucratic, overly prescriptive and hard to engage with. I want to acknowledge these challenges and the patience of providers as we have focused on embedding a new way of working.

We want to make it easier for people to engage with us. Over the last year we have been focused on changing the way we work to ensure we deliver nationally consistent, quality services that better meet the needs of our customers and providers.

Our focus for the future continues to be improving timely access to justice. We will continue to streamline procedures, make processes simpler and reduce paper which will pave the way for an electronic operation.

We will also continue to drive consistency in decision-making and service delivery, and aim to pay providers as quickly as possible.

We also want to ensure we have a robust complaints and audit regime in place.

To achieve this, we will continue to engage with providers so we build a modern service based on the needs of those who use it.

The graphic shows what we have achieved in this regard in the past year and what we are planning to do next. I look forward to working with you further as we progress our future priorities.

Tracey Baguley is Manager, Legal Services at the Ministry of Justice.

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