The Legal Services Commissioner shares an update on priority work around Legal Aid Services, Duty Lawyer Services and improving access to legal assistance for the people of Aotearoa.
When I last provided an update in LawTalk in December 2022 on the developments in Legal Aid Services, I highlighted that one of our key focuses for the year ahead would be to continue to work towards improving existing aspects of our service.
The Duty Lawyer Service in particular, is an area that I have been looking to concentrate on, as it has been a long time since this has been reviewed or any significant change made. During my time as Legal Services Commissioner I have heard feedback and concerns regarding the Duty Lawyer Service, and recognise the importance of making this area a priority. Over the past year, I have made a number of operational changes to improve the service, which are intended to acknowledge the important role Duty Lawyers have in the court and help to ensure the people of Aotearoa have ready access to legal assistance.
Earlier in the year we introduced a Duty Lawyer minimum payment policy. This enables Duty Lawyers to claim a minimum payment of two hours on weekdays, and a minimum payment of four hours on weekends and public holidays. This change was introduced in response to concerns raised by Duty Lawyers that hours were previously not guaranteed for rostered shifts in all courts. The change has provided a consistent approach to support Duty Lawyers who are rostered on for short attendances or on-call attendances.
Last month, I announced a 17 per cent increase in the remuneration rate for the Duty Lawyer Service. From 1 August 2023 the rates increased from $88 to $103 per hour on weekdays, and from $108 to $126 per hour on weekends and holidays. These rates had remained unchanged since 2009, and I acknowledge that for many this has been a long time coming. The feedback I received from the profession highlighted that an increase to the rates was overdue and needed. It is my hope that this increase will help to encourage duty lawyers to remain committed to providing the service.
Other improvements in the last year include the consolidation of the duty lawyer rostering for all Public Defence Service (PDS) and non-PDS courts into a single team within the Ministry of Justice. This was actioned in December 2022 and has helped provide the visibility we need to ensure that rostering is being managed as effectively and fairly as possible. It will make it easier to implement nationally consistent processes and make improvements to rostering and the service in the future.
While these changes are a good step in the right direction, there is room for further improvement. The last time the Duty Lawyer Service was looked at in detail was in 2011, when the management of the service transitioned to the Ministry of Justice from the Legal Services Agency. The profession has raised several concerns, including remuneration, coverage, and operational and rostering issues. It is important that we look in detail at the service and to make sure it is fit for purpose for the future.
As such, I am delighted to have commissioned a broad-scope review of the Duty Lawyer Service. The review will be led by KPMG and will be supported by an advisory group, comprising members of the legal profession, the PDS, the judiciary, and a manager from the District Courts. We will also engage with duty lawyers and other key stakeholders in this review.
The focus of the review will be on service delivery and management of the service. While the terms of reference will not be confirmed until the advisory group has been established, we envision that the review would look at some of the following aspects of the service:
the quality of the service in meeting the needs of defendants, courts, and Legal Aid Services, including in assisting defendants with legal matters and applying for legal aid
the roles and responsibilities of duty lawyers delivering the service, and of others in managing the service
appointment to and management of the duty lawyer rosters
remuneration to support and sustain the service for unrepresented criminal defendants, and
the roles of the PDS and Legal Aid Services, including monitoring and reporting, and overall management of the service.
The review is planned to start in August 2023, with a view to be completed by February 2024. I look forward to what will come from this review, and the opportunity it will create for further improvements to the service.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the valuable work that duty lawyers do every day to assist defendants and the courts. Duty lawyers play a critical role in providing access to justice for people charged with a criminal offence and are vital to ensuring that unrepresented and vulnerable defendants have access to a lawyer without delay. The ongoing commitment of the lawyers providing the service is seen and greatly appreciated. I look forward to working closely with you and hearing your feedback as the review of the Duty Lawyer Services progresses.