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Bazley's comments based on gossip, write a group of Manukau lawyers

Dame Margaret Bazley and Justice Minister Simon Power should urgently forward to the police and to the Serious Fraud Office all evidence of corruption by Manukau lawyers and other lawyers around the country.

Evidence of incompetence should be referred to the Law Society for speedy action.

Dame Margaret in her report on Legal Aid said that she had been "told that up to 80 per cent of the lawyers practising in the Manukau District Court could be gaming the legal aid system".

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She later said that the number of corrupt lawyers was "as high as 200 or even more".

However, Dame Margaret went on to say that criminal action should not be taken against these lawyers as it would be "fought every step of the way".

This is an astounding and deeply concerning statement. Lawyers are not above the law.

We, like any other member of the community, are required to obey the law. If some of us are corrupt we should be prosecuted - just as our clients would be.

Saying that this should not be done because it would be difficult is a fast track to completely undermining confidence in the legal system.

There cannot be one rule for some New Zealanders and another rule for others.

Fundamental tenets of our legal system are that all people should be treated equally, and that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done.

Dame Margaret's report unfortunately produces not a shred of specific evidence of corruption. Her comments appear to be based on nothing more than gossip.

However, her statements are deeply damaging to our reputations, to our clients' confidence in us and to confidence in the wider legal system.

That is why we are calling for speedy prosecutions of corrupt lawyers.

The report also criticises so-called "car boot" lawyers. It would be far easier for us as lawyers if we could meet our clients in our offices at pre-arranged times.

However, unfortunately, this is not the reality of most of our clients' lives.

Our clients have mental health illnesses, drug or alcohol addictions, intellectual disabilities, personality disorders and literacy problems.

Their lives are characterised by poverty and violence. Approximately 80 per cent of our clients do not have cars. A majority do not have landline phones.

Some have mobiles, but these will only sometimes be functioning. If we deal with a person for three months, it is not uncommon for that person to have three different addresses in that time.

Our clients' lives are stressful and chaotic - not neat and well-ordered.

Our clients have trouble getting to court on the right day and at the right time.

Many may arrive on the right day, but three hours late. Others may not be able to get there until several days later.

The stress of their lives is such that getting to court on the right day and at the right time may well come low on their list of priorities.

Going to a lawyer's office in another location and on another day is an even lower priority.

Those of us who have been in practice for many years have expressed concerns about a small number of inexperienced lawyers both to the Law Society and to the Legal Services Agency. No action has been taken in response.

When we began practising, lawyers worked with more senior lawyers and obtained experience before being able to take cases on their own.

Steps are now being taken to reintroduce that system and that is a good thing.

Dame Margaret was shocked by some of what she witnessed at courts, including small children spending hours there waiting for their parents to appear in court.

She suggested that social services should be provided at courts, including extending the Work and Income Community Link Centres case management system and staff into courts.

This is an excellent idea. A small pilot along those lines has operated at the Manukau District Court for the past two years. It was suggested by a lawyer.

If the Government is serious about reducing delays in the court system and providing people with speedy access to justice there are two things it should do.

Paper files at court should be abolished and replaced by electronic files.

Every day at every single court around the country hours and hours of time are wasted as paper files cannot be found. It is astonishing in 2009 that a paper system continues to be used.

The Government should also appoint more judges.

The reason that people wait 12 or 18 months for a court hearing is not because the lawyers, police or court staff are not ready to proceed with the case.

It is because there are not enough judges to hear cases.

Confidence in the legal system is crucial to the functioning of our community and we support all steps to maintain and improve it.

* Manukau lawyers - Denise Wallwork, Jane Northwood, Aarif Rasheed, James Maddox, Catriona MacLennan, Peter Fuiava, Vijaya Charan, Elaine Ward, Edith Te Whata, Victor Heather, Panama Le'Au'Anae, Irene West, Robyn Turner, Ted Faleauto, Des O'Connor, Carolyn Rameil, Andrew Simpson.