New Zealand Law Society - Improving the legal aid provider experience

Improving the legal aid provider experience

It’s been quite a year and it’s certainly been a time when we have seen professionals across New Zealand pause and reflect on what they can do to make a difference.

By Andrew Kibblewhite

Engaging with the profession to design a new application process for legal aid providers has reinforced the value of working together to improve access to justice. Secretary for Justice, Andrew Kibblewhite, provides an overview of the improvements made.

Improving access to justice is a clear priority for the justice system and providing legal aid to those who need it is one of the most important access to justice policies.

Delivering the legal aid system is a critical point of interaction between the Ministry of Justice and the profession – and I am grateful for your commitment and engagement with us to improve the overall legal aid experience.

Legal aid  meeting

As many practitioners will be aware, Legal Aid Services has been on a journey over the last couple of years to streamline processes to make it less administratively burdensome for lawyers and for ministry staff. The most recent step of that journey has been to look at the approval and contracting process to become a legal aid provider. We started with the broad proposition that it is probably unnecessary to have up to 90 pages worth of documents to wade through to become a legal aid provider for all areas of law.

So, we got to work.

In mid-August, we launched a new application form and supporting guidance for lawyers who want to apply to provide legal aid services. The application to provide legal aid services was originally split into four parts over 22 individual forms and 90 pages – cumbersome to say the least. Now the new updated form has been condensed down to a single form that is a much more reasonable seven pages total.

We also launched guidance for selection committee members who assess applications and provide recommendations on the applicant’s suitability for approval.

This work was part of a wider project to improve the experience lawyers have with approval and contracting processes for legal aid services or specified legal services. Feedback has been positive.

Initial findings

In early 2019, we conducted initial interviews with lawyers who had recently gone through the application, approval and contracting processes. We wanted to understand the user’s experience rather than assume we knew what needed to change.

Most people found that the processes were too administrative and time-consuming, discouraging lawyers from applying to provide legal aid services. Applicants found the questions in the original four-part, 22-form, 90-page process were repetitive. They were unsure what information they needed to submit to demonstrate their suitability. There was a lack of guidance on how to demonstrate experience and competence.

The new condensed form Applying to be a legal aid provider – step-by-step guide, is relevant to all areas of law and only asks the questions required to determine approval. The new form outlines the experience and competence I expect a potential legal aid lawyer to be able to demonstrate to be approved for the service they are applying for.

Reapproval process and contract renewal

A legal aid lawyer originally had to reapply every 3-5 years to continue providing their services. The intention was to give the ministry an opportunity to reassess lawyers’ performance, though in practice this can be better managed through processes like audits under our quality assurance framework. Further, the contract to provide these services expired every two years. There was no alignment between contracts ending and the reassessment of performance, creating an unnecessary administrative burden on approved lawyers.

We have now combined the contract with the application form and approval documentation when a lawyer first applies to provide legal aid services. Neither the contract or a lawyer’s approvals will expire, and the requirement to reapply for approval has been removed.

Changes to selection committees

Operational guidance has been developed for selection committee members to ensure consistent assessment and quality standards of applications are met. We have also improved our scheduling model to accelerate the overall application processing time from 5-8 weeks to 15 working days. The exceptions to this are applications for legal providers in the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori Land Court and Māori Appellate Court. In these cases, the number of applications we receive annually only necessitates a meeting every 20 working days.

Changes to Queen’s Counsel
In August 2019, we made it much easier for Queen’s Counsel to apply to be a legal aid provider. I recognise the level of skill and dedication required to achieve Queen’s Counsel status. As a result, we don’t require Queen’s Counsel to provide work samples or references if they are seeking approval to work in their usual area of practice.

“The Ministry of Justice is taking significant steps to improve processing and administration for all legal aid providers” – Maria Dew QC

Final words

I know there is much more to do. Clearly this review of process does not address concerns about thresholds and funding rates that are also important. Not withstanding that, I am proud of our collaborative mahi. We have worked together to design a process that is faster and easier. I hope this will encourage more lawyers to apply, growing the pool of providers, making it much easier for people to find a legal aid lawyer.

As the ministry works to improve the justice system, including improving access to justice, I expect there will be more opportunities for this kind of collaboration.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the engagement and consultation processes. The insights we received were invaluable. Your contribution helped shape the final designs and ensure we deliver and strengthen a high-quality legal aid service.

Andrew Kibblewhite is the Secretary for Justice.

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