Taxpayers paid nearly $14 million a year on Legal Aid representation for Northlanders and now the government is pumping tens of millions to increase better access to the service.
Family law advocates in particular are pleased Budget 2022 provides more than $148m over four years so more kiwis are eligible for legal aid and to cover the cost of existing demand for the service.
Hourly rates for legal aid lawyers will be raised by 12 per cent from July 1 and debt repayment period and the eligibility threshold for those receiving legal aid representation increased from next year.
The Ministry of Justice spent $13.8m, GST-inclusive, on sole practitioners and law firms in Northland in the year to June 2021.
Kaikohe-based Tukau Law, which specialises in litigation pertaining to foreshore and seabed and treaty claims, received $1.6m in legal aid payments— the highest in Northland between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
Watkins Law, also based in Kaikohe, was the second highest earner ($1m), and Thomson Wilson Law in Whangārei received $878,371.
Legal aid is government funding to pay for a lawyer for people who cannot afford one, and need one in the interests of justice. People who get legal aid may have to repay part or all of the funding.
In some cases, some or all the legal aid debt a person incurs can be written off if they cannot repay it.
Security on legal aid debt can be put on assets such as a house or a car.
Hourly rates for lawyers doing criminal, civil and family cases under the legal aid scheme at present range from $92 to $159 an hour.
Northland Criminal Bar Association co-chairs Arthur Fairley and Wayne McKean applaud the changes they believe will help retain lawyers in the legal aid scheme.
"The government still gets legal aid lawyers cheaply. It pays a legal aid lawyer half to a third of what everyone else pays for a private brief and lawyers in both criminal and civil have been dropping out of the scheme because of those rates," McKean said.
The managing director of Webb Ross McNab Kilpatrick law firm in Whangārei said other problems plaguing the scheme were accessibility of Northlanders to secure legal aid funding for legal representation and people turning up in court without a lawyer.
Webb Ross was paid $519,375 in legal aid work in the year to June 2021.
"These improvements won't solve the problem but they go some way to solving the issues in the system. In Northland, it's particularly important because we have quite low socio-economic groups, high deprivation, a lot of people can't afford a lawyer and are totally reliant upon getting legal aid."
Arthur Fairley of Thomson Wilson said many lawyers in Northland, especially those who undertook civil cases, stopped taking legal aid briefs because they simply could not afford it.
"Not many people are able to afford private legal representation and in a sense, the legal aid provision of the justice system should not be different to that from private representation.
"We are dealing with citizens who are accused of wrongdoing and whose liberty could be at serious risk and there could be serious consequences if they do not get proper legal representation," he said.
Fairley applauded the extended timeframe for people to repay their legal aid debt.
Whangārei lawyer Melissa Russell is hopeful the impending changes will improve access to justice, particularly for those in the Family Court.
"There is a real problem in Northland with a lack of providers willing to take on Family legal aid which means vulnerable people who may need urgent protection or parenting orders can be waiting weeks to see a lawyer and that is if they can get an appointment at all."
Russell said any extra remuneration would be a welcome relief to any legal aid provider, given it was the first increase since 2008.
Whangārei MP Emily Henderson said underfunding for legal aid and a complicated system meant far too few lawyers were willing to undertake Family Court matters in Northland.
"It has been dangerous for women in violent and exploitative relationships which go beyond emergency situations not to have legal aid representation. It's often mums with kids who end up worse off after a divorce."
Henderson, a former Family Court lawyer and Crown prosecutor in Whangārei, said it was 10 per cent of separating parents who took up 90 per cent of the court's time.
The sort of work she used to do as a lawyer helped bring to her Parliamentary colleagues' attention issues around better access to justice for all, she said.
Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi said 93,000 more kiwis would be eligible for legal aid from January next year with improvements around eligibility, repayment and legal aid lawyers' remuneration.
In order to address case backlogs due to Covid, Budget 2022 provides funding of $34.5m for appointment of additional judges and supporting the ministry staff to help them get back to more reasonable wait times.
An additional $11m has been allocated over four years to reduce outstanding workload in the District Court's criminal jurisdiction.