JustSpeak welcomes the opportunity to provide this submission on the Legal Services Amendment Bill. We support the Government's decision to strengthen legal aid services for everyone in Aotearoa.
We encourage the Government to improve the quality and standard of legal aid services by increasing funding. It is critical that accessibility to these services are improved in order to preserve the rights under s 24(c) of the Bill of Rights Act. New Zealand's legal aid services are predominantly used by our socio-economic communities. We know that these communities by virtue of their incomes are at a higher risk of falling into the justice system. Currently though, legal aid services are underfunded, which makes accessibility even more difficult, especially as the cost of living continues to rise.
Our key recommendations
Key Recommendation 1
We believe in a justice system that treats all people with dignity, respect, and compassion. We strongly support the Government in removing any historic debt for people who have engaged legal aid services, and have been unable to pay that debt back. Further, we strongly support the amendment to remove interest applied to legal aid debt. The Government should not be making money off people who are already struggling to pay for basic necessities. We believe our government must promote a fair and equitable society that is free from constraints that worsen deprivation. Removing debt and interest accrued on legal aid services will support people to secure jobs, housing, and employment because they are not encumbered by debt. This is particularly important for ex-prisoners who already face discrimination because they have criminal convictions.
Key Recommendation 2
We want an Aotearoa that encourages people to access basic rights and services. Accordingly, we support the amendment to repeal the $50 user charge to access legal aid. For many people, especially those who belong to low socio-economic communities, $50 is a significant amount of money. It can be the difference between having the ability to pay their power bill for the week or having the ability to put a meal on the table for their whānau. It is our view that people's access to basic needs should not be hindered by access to other basic rights such as the right to access legal services.
Key Recommendation 3
We want everyone to thrive. A prosperous and successful Aotearoa must be built around the needs of our most vulnerable. We recommend the Government increase the current access thresholds for legal aid. Current eligibility for legal aid services is difficult to access if you are employed. The current income thresholds for legal aid entitlements are:
The income for a full time minimum wage worker before tax in Aotearoa is: $36,715.40. This means, if you are single, working full time, and on minimum wage you are unlikely to be eligible to access legal aid services, despite being a low wage income earner. This demonstrates why these thresholds should be increased. We urge the Government to adjust the eligibility threshold relative to incomes, the cost of living, and inflation.
Other important considerations
Pay disparity for legal aid providers
We recommend the Government increase the rates for legal aid service providers in line with the salaries and rates of prosecutors. The hourly rates for legal aid lawyers are considerably lower relative to rates for lawyers who represent the Crown and Police. We know that legal aid providers feel a moral duty to provide these services, however, legal aid provision in its current state is not sustainable. In an average week, legal aid lawyers are working 11 hours more than they are contracted to, and often do work free of charge to ensure clients get the help they need.
The workload and low pay rates for legal aid lawyers makes doing this important work unappealing and burdensome for a job that is already difficult. For legal aid providers, this can lead to low job satisfaction or otherwise stop legal aid providers from doing this important work. The result of disparate pay rates can lead to a lower standard of service than people who can afford non-legal aid lawyers. We know that lower standards of service can be the difference between a person going to prison or not. We encourage the Government to give equitable and fair support where it's needed.
Access to justice and especially legal aid services are a fundamental part of our society. Any barriers that prevent or interrupt people from accessing legal advice must be removed. We know that the equitable provision of legal aid services will enable people to better thrive in our society and also ensure the Government upholds important rights in accordance with the Bill of Rights Act.