Lawyer calls for legal aid revamp

By Imran Ali

Northland's top criminal lawyer has called on the Ministry of Justice to reverse its policy of fixed fees payment for criminal legal aid in light of a Court of Appeal ruling.

The appeal court last week ruled that the Government's process for implementing the policy where lawyers get paid a fixed amount rather than hourly for cases was illegal.

Justice Minister Judith Collins confirmed that the Crown had applied for leave from the Supreme Court to quash the Court of Appeal's decision.

But lawyer Arthur Fairley of Thomson Wilson law in Whangarei said the Court of Appeal decision was a "good" one and should be followed by the government.

"Currently they (government) have been running legal aid on a discount. Logically, since the Court of Appeal has ruled against them, they should revert (to the hourly-rate policy)," he said.

Mr Fairley said although the Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of the Criminal Bar Association, whether or not the ministry followed the ruling was another matter.

Thomson Wilson received the highest criminal legal aid payout last year, at $432,304, out of the $7.3 million forked out to Northland lawyers.

The Crown has advised the Court of Appeal it intended to continue paying legal aid lawyers a fixed rate rather than on an hourly-basis until a final determination was made by the Supreme Court.

It said it was not in the public interest to stop processing about 1215 applications for legal aid throughout New Zealand which came through each week.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) launched court proceedings after the Government's cost-saving shake-up of the whole legal aid system, which resulted in legal aid lawyers getting a 10 per cent pay cut.

After losing in High Court, the CBA went to the Court of Appeal.

The changes to legal aid came after a report by Dame Margaret Bazley which found system-wide failings and resulted in fixed fees for criminal legal aid cases, regardless of how much time they involved.

In appealing the decision, Justice Minister Judith Collins said she was pleased the Court of Appeal had found the fixed fees policy was not unreasonable and that cutting costs was a lawful purpose of the new act.

- Northern Advocate

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