It has been over 18 months since I started acting as the Legal Services Commissioner (LSC). Now that my role as LSC has been made permanent, it is timely to reflect on what we have achieved over that time and the changes still to come.
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that the past few years have been challenging for everyone due to Covid-19. I am very proud of how Legal Aid Services was able to respond during that time, acting quickly to make changes to current policy and practices to allow providers to continue to work safely and remotely where needed. We also focused on paying invoices and processing applications as quickly as we could to ensure minimal delays to our participants. I want to take this opportunity to share my appreciation of our providers for their continued commitment to providing legal services over that period.
Despite these challenges, there have been significant improvements to the legal aid scheme over the past two years. We worked with you to advocate for improvements and as a result we received increased funding through Budget 2022, which has seen a further investment of $148.7 million over the next four years.
This investment included an increase to hourly rates and hearing and waiting time fixed fees for providers, which have already been implemented. The Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) will also implement changes to key policy settings from 1 January 2023, including increasing repayment thresholds, removing the user charge for civil and family cases, and making legal aid debt interest-free. The eligibility thresholds are also being increased over the next three years to further enable access to justice for those who cannot afford a lawyer. I acknowledge that there are concerns about the fixed fee schedules which were not reviewed as part of this budget initiative. However, we will be starting a review of the fixed fee schedules next year. I will be engaging with you once this work gets underway.
“How we manage and communicate with clients may sometimes look different to clients’ experiences with bigger firms, but this is also part of the charm that comes with working in a community and for ourselves”
In addition, we have also made several operational changes to improve the legal aid service. We reviewed and updated our Protection of Personal Property Rights Act 1988 policy, enabling access to legal aid for simple applications made under this Act. We introduced a limited civil approval for lawyers with refugee experience to enable them to act in Warrant of Committal proceedings. We have also increased the number of hours that are initially granted to prepare for these hearings to reduce the administrative burden on lawyers at the early stages of the case. My hope is that we will increase the number of experienced legal aid lawyers available to represent refugees and protected persons in these hearings. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to improve the availability of counsel for these proceedings following this year’s release of an independent review by Victoria Casey KC into the detention of people seeking asylum.
We have worked to streamline the provider complaint management process to uphold public confidence in the service and we have also made improvements to our provider approval process and audit framework. I am heartened by the feedback I have received to date, but I acknowledge that we’re not there yet and there is more work to do in this area. We will be making further improvements over the next year.
Earlier in the year I was involved in Whakatika ki Runga (Kaupapa Inquiry), the Waitangi Tribunal inquiry into funding for claimants. As a follow-up from this inquiry, I will be engaging with Waitangi providers in the new year to better understand what improvements could be made to ensure Waitangi Tribunal claimants have timely access to legal aid.
Looking forward to the year ahead, there are a couple of key focus areas for me. For example assessing the current and projected future state of legal aid provider coverage across Aotearoa New Zealand. We will work closely with you to identify how we can improve the coverage of representation, to ensure we have a sustainable and effective legal aid scheme now and into the future.
We will also continue work to refresh and update existing aspects of our service. We have begun work to improve the administration of the Duty Lawyer Service. Earlier this month we worked with the Public Defence Service to move the rostering of all duty lawyers and the Police Detention Legal Assistance scheme to a single team within the Ministry. Making this change will provide us with more visibility and identify areas where changes are required to ensure this service is fit for purpose. This will include a review of the entire Duty Lawyer Service.
We have a big year ahead of us and I look forward to working with you to continue to make improvements to ensure continued access to justice for the people of Aotearoa.