The legal aid system is on the brink of collapse and thousands of people are struggling to access justice, according to a Law Society survey of the profession.
It found 20,000 people were turned away from legal aid lawyers in the past 12 months. Part of the problem is the low legal aid rates, which haven’t increased in more than a decade.
“They’re [lawyers] spending money to do legal aid cases so that’s just not sustainable. There needs to be investment in a system that is designed to help people access justice,” said Tiana Epati, Law Society president.
More than 3,000 lawyers are approved to take on legal aid cases, but just 2,000 are active. Epati said that’s not enough to meet demand, and it’s having “dire” social consequences with many people giving up on their cases. “They just don’t fight for their rights, a father just gives up in fighting for custody to see his children, that’s what happens,” said Epati.
Covid-19 has made the problem worse. Almost 47,000 court events have been adjourned in the latest lockdown and there’s a backlog of more than 3,000 jury trials. Epati said last year lawyers got through a smaller backlog, largely through goodwill but now that’s been “drained dry.” She said it’s vital the small pool of legal aid lawyers are retained, but the survey shows one quarter are thinking of leaving. “We’re not going to get through the Covid backlog, which is building everyday without the senior lawyers. If they walk in the next 12 months, it will be too far gone,” warned Epati.
She said there’s “massive concern” among the legal profession over the state of legal aid. “This survey confirms what we've known for 10 years and it's unquestionably going to get worse.”
The Law Society is calling on the Government to act fast to fix the problem, by increasing legal aid fees and funding junior lawyer to support legal aid seniors.
The survey is the largest of its kind, with nearly 3,000 out of New Zealand’s more than 14,000 lawyers responding. Colmar Brunton, which carried out the survey in September, is 95 per cent confident the findings are representative of the profession.