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Under proposed changes, legal aid lawyers will have to face ongoing competency tests -- a possible world first -- and face faster removal if not up to the job, MPs were told today.
Former High Court Judge Sir John Hansen was appointed chairman of the Legal Aid Services board after Margaret Bazley's damning review last year found the service undermined by incompetent, unscrupulous and sometimes corrupt lawyers looking after their own interests.
Problems included lawyers failing to appear in court or when they did being unprepared; lawyers gaming the system so cases took longer than needed so they could get the maximum fees; demands for top up payments from clients who did not understand the service was free and widespread abuse of the preferred lawyer policy by duty solicitors, including taking backhanders for recommending particular lawyers to applicants.
Legal aid helps those who cannot pay for their court defence, so their financial circumstances do not deprive them of a fair hearing.
The service is going to lose its independent status and be folded into the Justice Ministry.
Sir John told Parliament's justice and electoral select committee that the board was not just managing the transition but was actively working on improvements.
"It has always concerned me that the agency's accreditation process for legal aid lawyers does not include competency assessment and having one is a priority," he said.
"We are, in terms of the reforms going forward, working closely with both the Law Society and Ministry of Justice so that the new legislation will have in it a proper accreditation system...
"It might be a surprise to all of us but I think this will be the first country in the world to introduce competency, rather than just years of experience as one of the elements to qualify for legal aid."
Sir John said the accreditation process should include an expert panel and he hoped it would be made up of representatives from the judiciary, Law Society, community, and legal profession.
He said accreditation should include ongoing legal education, mentoring of junior lawyers, and efforts to get right ethnic mix.
Meanwhile efforts were being made to remove the lawyers not up to standard.
Transition manager, Stuart White, who was seconded from the Justice Ministry, where he is general manager of special jurisdictions, said audits were being conducted.
Profiling of lawyers with a high volume of cases was being done and targeted audits would follow. Also, in some cases, lawyers who were also paid fees for doing advocacy work or Family Court work were being looked at.
Sir John said at the moment when a complaint was made the society handled generally handled it. However, legal aid lawyers were essentially on a government contract and there was no reason to delay if requirements were not met.
"I think we need a system where we can act and not wait around for Law Society disciplinary processes, which can be lengthy."
Justice Minister Simon Power said the proposals would be considered.
"Sir John Hansen has tremendous experience on the bench, in the criminal justice and criminal jurisdictions, and is somebody whose ideas the Government would be wise to listen to.
"I am talking to him regularly about these issues and I have every confidence that any suggestions that he made in this area would be seriously considered by the Government."