A seasoned South Canterbury lawyer backs the Law Society’s comments that legal aid in New Zealand is on the verge of collapsing, saying people are being left without representation.
On Thursday, a woman from south Canterbury spoke about her experience of being denied to all providers in the district.
She had called all the South Canterbury Legal Aid lawyers, trying out Oamaru and Ashburton before finally finding a firm in Christchurch capable of handling her family law case.
JMJ Lawyers director and criminal legal aid attorney Tim Jackson said the woman’s experience was all too common.
* Justice squeeze: Thousands of people turned back as legal aid system collapses, Law Society says
* Lack of legal aid lawyers in Blenheim sees Nelson lawyers helping
* Talent spotted as a waitress, Tiana Epati now heads the legal profession
* Lawyers call meeting on family law legal aid shortage in Blenheim
“It happens all the time, people call us to try to get a lawyer and tell us they have tried 10 other places.
“For general civil legal aid, suffice to say that we do not have the capacity, which is directly related to the funding difficulties.
He said he is aware that people are really having a hard time finding family lawyers in Timaru at this time.
“All of the current family lawyers are already busy – there just aren’t enough of them. “
Jackson agreed with recent comments by Bar President Tiana Epati following the publication of a nationwide survey of legal aid providers that the system is “falling apart.”
“In my experience, if anything [her comments] are underestimated.
Jackson said the system is “in a terrible state and getting worse by the day,” and any discussion of legal aid is part of a “bigger and almost hopelessly complex picture.”
“The difficulty is these conversations that have arisen now, these are desperate conversations. By the time we have them, it is too late.
Legal aid pay rates should increase immediately to avoid the loss of qualified attorneys and a full review of procedures, assumptions and resource allocation is needed, Jackson said.
Hourly rate of pay did not increase since 2008, and represent about half of the rates Crown attorneys and independent lawyers receive.
“No private sector organization could survive if it were based on near break-even rates of return to work at already low rates and not adjusted for inflation or cost of living for 12 years.”
The Law Society’s report shows that legal aid lawyers have turned away more than 20,000 people in the past year.
Jackson said the lack of training opportunities is a major contributor to the shortage.
“The problem is, there aren’t enough lawyers doing it, and that’s because there are too many barriers for lawyers to gain experience, and no one ‘gets paid to learn,’ Jackson said.
He said legal aid has to pay people not only to do the job, but to do it competently, and allow other lawyers to do it.
“The training system right now is that other lawyers are saying, ‘Can I go to a jury trial and be your unpaid junior? “
“They are looking for experience and want – and need – to actively participate in the trial, which is the key problem; I am not going to put them in charge of witnesses or cross-examinations or anything that might be crucial at trial, because with all due respect to the desire of others to learn, I cannot jeopardize the defending my client at trial to train someone. “
This represents an additional burden to try to manage in a case capped on already reduced tariffs, he said.
Jackson said the shortage is exacerbated by the need for junior lawyers to show they have experience before they can move up through the ranks when it is so difficult to gain experience.
“This is where the rubber meets the road, because I’m the one who stands in court to speak to the judge and jury and perform my duties competently – if I don’t, my client will suffer. I could be appealed and find myself before the bar.
“Another practical problem is that when the Crown deals with a file, it is essentially handed over to them by the police. Police investigate, speak to witnesses, prepare statements, pack them up and turn them over to the Crown.
Jackson said that when defending someone – with less money and less time than the Crown – the defense has to do that work itself.
“You have an allowance to give it a try. They usually cap your jury trial prep time at 10 a.m., so if you’re getting ready at 30 – which is safe – you just need to wear it.
He said that in almost all criminal cases legal aid lawyers are not paid for the time they work.
“For every hour they pay us, there are about three hours of unpaid work.
Jackson said it was onerous to constantly have to apply for and reapply for other grants.
“You spend more time asking for money than spending it.
“It doesn’t make any commercial sense. Big firms won’t be looking at criminal legal aid, it’s smaller firms and local lawyers like me.
“Anyone who is competent will do their job properly and professionally, which means you get a discount because it takes time and careful attention to a myriad of facts and substantive and procedural rules. It could be fine for one case, but spread it over 10 cases… ”
Jackson said this causes many attorneys to decide it’s just not worth doing legal aid work.
“It’s hard to pretend they’re wrong. “
“Even in the [Law Society] survey which they relied largely on, there were questions as to whether you were volunteering, which is a nice way to describe it. It’s dressing and sanitizing by working for free with a Latin name … but that’s how it is.
Jackson said the crisis is the result of long-term underfunding.
“We are seeing the results of 15 or 20 years of neglect. “
It highlights societal attitudes and assumptions to help explain chronic underfunding.
“There are underlying assumptions that no one answers – for example, that every person accused of a crime has probably done something wrong and does not deserve a strong defense, or … that solving the crime is a sinkhole. bottomless financial, or the big unspoken attitude that most of us aren’t affected by it, so whatever, let’s spend as little as possible.
“So when the government hijacks the reflect what we expect as minimum acceptable standards … There are massive injustices.” “