Changing legislation to address poor performance from a small minority of lawyers providing legal aid services is a case of overkill, a criminal bar association says.
Representatives from the legal fraternity gave varying submissions to Parliament's justice and electoral committee today on the Legal Services Bill, drafted in response to a damning report by Dame Margaret Bazley which found some lawyers were delivering poor service and gaming the system to make money.
The bill will disestablish the Legal Services Agency and make the Secretary for Justice responsible for administering the system.
It will establish a Legal Services Commissioner as an independent statutory officer, within the ministry, who will be responsible for deciding grants for legal aid and the management of cases.
Speaking on behalf of the Wellington Criminal Bar, lawyer Noel Sainsbury said there was no need to make changes for the sake of a few lawyers who lacked competetence or didn't abide by ethical standards.
"The concern the Wellington Criminal Bar has about the new legislation is that it in fact doesn't do anything new."
Mr Sainsbury said the point of the bill appeared to be to drive the Legal Services Agency into a new body.
He said while the agency did a good job at local level, there were problems higher up.
"If there are problems with the management, deal with it. If there are problems with the lack of will to enforce what is proper and acceptable standards, deal with it."
The association was also critical of moves to distribute legal aid work on a rotation basis, something which would in effect reward the few who were incompetent. It also meant clients wouldn't be able to choose lawyers, and would be forced to chop and change.
Mr Sainsbury said the power had always been available to get rid of lawyers who let the system down and there needed to be "more steel to the spine of the Legal Services Agency".
New Zealand Law Society president Jonathan Temm said the society considered improvements were needed with legal aid services, and pressed ongoing concerns about remuneration levels.
He said rates for legal aid had remained stagnant from 1998 until 2008, when there was a 10 percent rise, but were "so far behind what is acceptable, that quality lawyers are leaving the system".
The society wasn't an advocate for better pay, but needed to make it clear how detrimental the situation could become, he said.
Mr Temm also called for legal aid used for Waitangi Tribunal claims to be funded separately to other legal aid. He said 40 percent of the increase in last year's overall legal aid funding was from treaty claims.
"What's happening to the rest of the legal profession and legal aid providers is that we are effectively being clubbed by the increase in funding for the cost of legal aid, when in actual fact it's government policy around Waitangi Tribunal claims which is driving that cost forward."
The Coalition of Community Law Centres said it had concerns it was losing its ability to directly make representations to government, and the new bill was pushing it further down the "back of the bus" in terms of legal agencies.