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Legal Aid Review Panel In Crisis

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Legal Aid Review Panel In Crisis

By Adam Roberts for NZPA

New Zealand's Legal Aid Review Panel is at crisis point and at risk of falling over, its convener says.

Parliament's justice and electoral committee is considering a bill to reform the legal aid system by replacing the current Legal Aid Review Panel with a new legal aid tribunal controlled by the Ministry of Justice.

Lawyers wanting to provide legal aid would also be subject to a new quality assurance and performance management system to prevent incompetent or unethical lawyers gaming the system.

Panel convener Andrew Beck said the current panel was underfunded and members were only there part-time, so were unable to give judgments the time they deserved.

The new tribunal should have a permanent chairperson to provide resources to deal with the large workload, and should be entirely composed of lawyers, as legal reasoning was important for considering matters, Mr Beck said.

Those on the tribunal should also be able to pledge a certain amount of time so cases could be given due consideration.

"What we want is for good lawyers to be involved in the tribunal," Mr Beck said.

The new legal aid tribunal also needed powers to enforce non-compliance, and to judge cases where agencies had made no decision.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Bar Association was concerned that moving the tribunal to the Ministry of Justice would be equivalent to nationalising legal aid.

They favoured the status quo, with a mixed scheme.

Legal aid cost taxpayers more than $160 million last year, up 19 percent on the previous year, with increasing amounts being paid out on Family Court and Treaty of Waitangi cases.

Dame Margaret Bazley's 2009 review of the legal aid system found significant issues with the quality of services and with the mechanisms to manage the quality and efficiency of services.

The report found there was a small but significant group of lawyers, and some defendants, who were abusing the system to the detriment of clients, the legal aid system, the courts and the taxpayer.

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