The Legal Aid Committee was re-convened in 2013 as a result of the Legal Aid Amendment Act 2012. The Committee aims to promote access to justice in a manner which is fair, equitable, transparent and professional and which uses public resources carefully and effectively.
In 2014 the Committee invited anyone with experience of the current Legal Aid system to let it know whether they believe there could be refinements, new alternative solutions, or indeed where they felt the system is working well.
It particularly requested comments regarding the ability of the current system to provide:
- Fairness and equity in access to justice;
- Effective use of limited resources and value for money;
- Transparency, simplicity and efficiency;
- Professionalism and continuous quality improvement in practice; and
- A service shaped around the needs of its customers, clients, and users.
The Committee encouraged respondents to be unhindered by the operation of the existing arrangements and to provide ideas and express options for alternative approaches which may deliver the above principles more effectively.
It had been 14 years since the last fundamental review of how legal representation is provided to those without the means to pay for it themselves and it was inevitable that, with such a long time since a fundamental review took place, the responses were many and wide ranging, varying from simple changes to administrative processes through to suggestions for major policy changes which may fundamentally affect the manner in which access to justice is publically funded.
The Committee prioritised a number of the "easy win" suggestions and these have now been implemented, such as:
- Production of a "Legal Aid Handbook" giving detailed guidance to advocates on the operation of the scheme, and consolidating the "Panel Letters" into easily accessible document
- Formal guidelines and set fees for mediation, with standard application forms
- Phased introduction of time and cost specific legal aid certificates
- Scheme of delegation from the Legal Aid Certifying Officer to officers in respect of certain emergency matters
- Revised reporting and performance management for the Legal Aid Certifying Officers
The Legal Aid Committee will be considering the first draft of their interim report in the autumn of 2015 with the aim of circulating their proposals for public consultation in early 2016.