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Legal Aid Reform Bill Sent To Select Committee

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Simon Power
Simon Power

A bill to reform the legal aid system passed its first reading in Parliament today. The Legal Services Bill gives effect to the Government's reform package announced following Dame Margaret Bazley's critical report into the legal aid system.

"Dame Margaret's report called for urgent action to rebuild trust in legal aid after identifying system-wide failings," Justice Minister Simon Power said.

"The bill, along with operational changes already under way, will establish a system that will deliver high-quality legal services to those who need them and to taxpayers who pay for them."

Last year there were 85,156 legal aid grants costing $131 million. Key measures in the bill include: Disestablishing the Legal Services Agency and shifting responsibility for the administration of legal aid to the Secretary for Justice.

Establishing an independent statutory officer, the Legal Services Commissioner, who will have responsibility for granting legal aid and ensuring the independence of lawyers in the Public Defence Service. Introducing a new quality assurance framework where legal aid lawyers will have to demonstrate competency to a selection committee according to objective criteria.

Performance will be monitored by the Performance Review Committee, and sanctions imposed where appropriate. Lawyers will have to re-apply to be a legal aid lawyer after a fixed term (up to 3 years). Allowing the Secretary for Justice the flexibility to establish different legal services and deliver services in different ways.

Streamlining eligibility for low-cost criminal cases in the summary jurisdiction. These cases will involve a shorter application form and will not be subject to repayment, unless they exceed a set amount. Allowing the Secretary for Justice to contract community law centres to provide legal services. Replacing the Legal Aid Review Panel with the Legal Aid Tribunal, which will consider applications for review of legal aid applications.

The bill has been sent to the Justice and Electoral select committee for public consultation. Mr Power hopes to have the bill passed into law by March next year.

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