Tauranga District Court has seen a drop in criminal legal aid applications the past three years - but that does not necessarily mean crime is on the decline, a local lawyer says.
For the year ending June 30, there were 2427 criminal legal aid applications in 2012, 2200 in 2013, and 1972 in 2014.
Tauranga criminal lawyer Craig Tuck believed that, because police were dealing with crime differently, that was behind the decrease, rather than a significant drop in crime.
"Crime doesn't disappear. It just morphs into a different form," he said. "Police are doing things differently, handing out more pre-charge warnings and so on."
That meant fewer people were ending up in court, he said.
Mr Tuck did not think changes to the legal aid system had affected the number of applications much, though the new system had "weaknesses and anomalies", particularly in regard to lawyer fees.
A fixed fee system was introduced in 2012, which meant lawyers were paid a set amount, rather than an hourly rate for legal aid cases. Lawyers could, however, put in an amendment to cover additional work if needed. The system is being reviewed.
Nationally, criminal legal aid applications have declined markedly over the past three years. For the year ending June 30, there were 51,703 criminal legal aid applications in 2012, 49,973 in 2013, and 47,290 in 2014. The figures included cases that were initially approved but later withdrawn.
Several changes were made to the legal aid system over the three-year period to reduce costs.
Legal Aid Services general manager Michele McCreadie said the nationwide decrease in criminal legal aid applications was due to a drop in the number of cases before the courts.
"Crime rates in New Zealand have been dropping for many years and this has seen the number of people charged in New Zealand courts at the lowest level since our current statistics began in 1980/81," she said. "Secondly, under the Policing Excellence scheme, the police have made greater use of pre-charge warnings, which aim to divert lower end offences away from prosecution and court proceedings."
Numbers of criminal legal aid applications would not be the only area likely to be down. Recent reforms to the Family Court had also resulted in fewer applications for family legal aid, she said.
Changes were made to court procedures in March to divert disputes to a mediation process whenever possible.
The changes were intended to reduce the stress on children and families by avoiding the conflict, delays and expenses of court.