A bill to reform the legal aid system and deal with serious failings identified in a government inquiry was introduced to Parliament today.
Justice Minister Simon Power said the inquiry report from Dame Margaret Bazley identified system-wide failings and pointed to an urgent need to rebuild trust in the legal aid system.
"The bill, in conjunction with operational changes already under way, will establish a system that will deliver high-quality legal services to those who need them and ensure that public money is spent properly," he said.
Key measures in the Legal Services 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 will ensure 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. Performance will be monitored by the Performance Review Committee, which can impose sanctions;
* 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 have 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; and
* Replacing the Legal Aid Review Panel with the Legal Aid Tribunal which will consider applications for review of legal aid applications.
Mr Power said he hoped to have the bill passed into law by March next year.
Last year there were 85,156 legal aid grants which cost taxpayers $131 million.