NZ Law Society turns spotlight on top legal aid lawyer
Auckland barrister Charl Hirschfeld who made around $8 million from legal aid over a four-year period is facing disciplinary proceedings.
The president of the New Zealand Law Society, Jonathan Temm, says he is the subject of a Standards Committee inquiry regarding his legal aid work.
In 2010, the year before he quit doing legal aid, much of it for Treaty of Waitangi claims, Mr Hirschfeld netted $2.8 million (GST exclusive), making him the top-earning legal aid lawyer in the country.
At the time he was quoted as saying: “Yes, we do earn our money.”
Mt Temm told NBR ONLINE that Mr Hirschfeld’s contract with the Legal Services Agency “was cancelled or suspended” and an inquiry is now under way into him, but “how far that has progressed I can’t tell you.”
“The outcome is public but not the process.”
Mr Hirschfeld did not return our calls.
There are twenty two Standards Committees around New Zealand made up of legal and lay personnel.
They are quasi-judicial bodies established under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.
They hear all manner of complaints against lawyers and have the power to censure or fine errant practitioners.
Yesterday a barrister, who was working for the same legal chambers as Mr Hirschfeld, was struck off for forgery in relation to legal aid applications for Treaty claims.
One time Maori radical Atareta Poananga falsified 20 signatures while processing Treaty claims between 2008 and 2010.
The chairwoman of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, Judge Dale Clarkson, says striking her off the roll of barristers and solicitors was the only proper response “in order to protect the public and the reputation of the profession.”
Ms Poananga, who is a former Maori Party candidate and Gisborne district councillor, came to the attention of the Law Society following a legal aid audit.
She says pressure led to her misconduct because she was responsible for about 35 claims covering much of the North Island.
NBR ONLINE has been told by a well placed source that at the time of her wrongdoing Ms Poananga was contracted as a barrister to Jamaica Chambers in Auckland, the same chambers that Mr Hirschfeld works for.
“What she was doing, for whatever reason, was signing (legal aid applications) on behalf of people,” says Mr Temm.
“The law doesn’t permit that. And in addition to signing on their behalf she was either forging their signature without their consent or forging their signature with their consent.
“She was also then signing a declaration saying it was true and correct knowing that it wasn’t.”
Mr Temm says all of the claimants would have been eligible for legal aid if the forms had been correctly filled out.
“So the entitlement was probably quite valid. There was no pecuniary advantage to her directly.”
Asked how much legal aid money could be granted for such applications he said: “Waitangi Tribunal claims can be anything from a dollar to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“It depends on the complexity and size of the claim. It’s simply not possible to give an educated guess.”
Ms Poananga’s forged signatures were spotted by chance by Justice Ministry officials examining her legal aid file with regard to another issue.
Spokeswoman Alison Hill says: “One of our staff thought the signature looked a bit odd and followed through by cross-checking it with the person whose signature it was supposed to have been.”
“After they told us they never signed the document we scrutinised more of Ms Poananga’s legal aid files.
“We also informed the assigned lead provider and Ms Poananga of the irregular signatures.
“During our investigation Ms Poananga advised us that the clients had not signed the documents.
“We cancelled Ms Poananga’s approval as a legal aid provider, terminated her legal aid contract, and laid a complaint with the New Zealand Law Society.”
It is still unclear whether Ms Poananga will face any criminal charges as a result of the forgery.
Her dishonesty comes in the wake of a major shake up of the legal aid system following a damning report by Dame Margaret Bazley.
The distinguished public servant found that many lawyers were delivering poor service and gaming the system to make money.
She alleged that the justice system had been undermined by more than 200 corrupt lawyers who were rorting the taxpayer-funded legal aid.
She also accused lawyers of taking backhanders, charging illegal “top-up” fees and grouping together to defraud the legal aid system.
Two years ago the Legal Services Agency paid $161.7 million to legal aid providers, up from $136 million the previous year.
Just over $18 million of this was for Treaty work.
Left unchecked, it was estimated the legal aid bill would reach $200 million by 2013.
For her part, Ms Poananga has also ruffled feathers at the Gisborne District Council where she was a councillor for nine years.
During her tenure she copped flak on a number of occasions for her relatively high travel expenses and her non-attendance at some community meetings.
In 2004 she claimed mileage for 4405kms that she clocked up attending 16 meetings over a four-month period, prompting one councillor to declare that “it is starting to look like a train full of gravy. The distance involved seems incredible”
She defended this by saying she represented a rural ward some distance from Gisborne, and her constituents deserved the same level of representation as those who lived in the city.