Legal aid still unsettled

| 10/05/2010

(CNS):  Some of the questions surrounding the recent legal aid review  were discussed during Public Accounts Committee last week. Although the results of the report undertaken earlier this year have remained under wraps, Valdis Foldats, whowas a member of the Legal Aid Review Committee told PAC, in his opinion, that the cost of a legal aid clinic would be far more expensive than the current arrangements. The review was finished several weeks ago in March but government is refusing to reveal its contents, despite an FOI request submitted by CNS. The PAC meeting gave the first indication in public that the findings may not be to government’s liking.

During the PAC examination of the auditor general’s report on the Legal Aid Programme, Foldats re-emphasised that a public defenders’ office or legal aid clinic would be considerably more expensive than the current system, which for all its flaws was cost effective.
Foldats admitted that there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed regarding the current legal aid programme, but as a result of the premier’s announcement to change the system the courts had not implemented any of the recommendations made by Duguay in his audit, even though they agreed with his findings.
Foldats explained that since the premier’s announced intention last October to introduce a clinic, the reduction of the budget and the committee’s review of the system, no decisions had been made about the future of legal aid and it was not clear if it was going to stay in its present form. He said the premier had indicated the desire to remove the judiciary from the decision making process and the system remained in question.
The clerk of court pointed out that the Law Reform Commission’s original review of the system in 2008 had made a number of recommendations, which were noted in the auditor general’s report and which he said the court had hoped would have been implemented.
“I would have hoped the Legislative Assembly would have acted upon the Reform Commission’s report as it was apparent that reform was needed,” he added. The commission had found that the current legal aid system was good value for money but had established the law and regulations needed to make the system function properly and made a number of recommendations.
Foldats, who was a member of the more recent reviewwhich examined possible alternatives, advised PAC on his calculations that a minimum of 13.5 attorneys would be needed to match current delivery, and given the cost of work permits, benefits and salaries as well as the cost of support staff and office premises, this would far exceed the current $1.8 million that the system is given each year.
During the PACs questioning the issue of who gets the legal aid work was also examined and Ellio Solomon a UDP member of PAC and the Legal Aid Review Committee made accusations about lawyers pushing civil cases into the courts in order to get the money instead of sorting the disputes through mediation.
Foldats said he disagreed with Solomon’s comments. Attorneys were officers of the court, he said, who have a duty to act properly and they would be appalled by his accusations, which Foldats advised Solomon to withdraw – which he did not and continued to imply that lawyers were cheating the system.
The clerk told PAC that most of the legal aid civil work focused on difficult divorces, often involving child custody issues and violence, cases where people needed legal assistance and lawyers were certainly not forcing cases into the court room. “If people need a divorce they need legal assistance; it has to be done in the court; a divorce cannot be done through mediation; it’s a legal matter,” he said.
Pointing out that the current legal aid rate of $135 per hour paid to any lawyer who wasconducting legal aid work was far below current commercial rates, Foldats also noted that many attorneys worked over and above the hours they billed — effectively working for free.
The issue of who gets the work was also a key point raised by PAC members and Foldats said that as a result of the recent review he had canvassed all the local law firms to ask them their current position regarding providing legal aid services and 23 attorneys said they were prepared to do the work.
It was also confirmed by the other court witnesses, Jennifer King and Delene Cacho as well as Foldats, that there were in reality a very small number of lawyers who were able to assist the courts when it came to the work. The idea that one firm was taking a significant amount of the legal aid budget was explained by the fact that the firm had the highest number of lawyers willing to undertake legal aid work.
In recent months the court has seen the number of even the most willing attorneys decline as problems over receiving legal aid payments have mounted as a result of uncertainty surrounding its future.
Foldats noted that he agreed broadly with the AG’s findings in his review of the legal aid programme and that there needed to be more accountability and tracking in the system but that the problems were down to the lack of funding. He pointed out that the most important remit the system had to fulfill was that all those who faced serious crimes who had a right to legal representation were assisted by the current system.
The PAC chair focused on why the Law Reform Commission’s original recommendations had not made its way into legislation. It was revealed that the bill and regulations had been revised and were ready for consideration by the Legislative Assembly since last year. Miller committed to doing what he could to find out why the legal reforms had not been brought to the House.
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Comments (12)

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  1. Joe Average says:

    If government keeps working this over which they are prone to do, I would not blame the last remaining "willing" attorneys to say "stuff it.. it’s not worth it", in which case we will be stuck with a legal aid system run solely by government, with government appointed attorneys following government guidelines.  Apparatchik anyone?  Nyet.

  2. Voice of Reason says:

    An informed and unbiased review from Mr. Foldats. One hopes the politicians will take note and act accordingly!

  3. islandman says:

    Given the amount of money Govt. wastes, it has always seemed to me that $2 million per annum for legal aid is not a lot.

    Unfortunately, if Govt. has it’s way it will likely respond with calling for Mr. Foldats to follow Mr. Duguay.

     

    • Anonymous says:

      I think it would be unfortunate to equate Mr. Foldat’s responses to questions with the situation regarding the Auditor General.

      Mr. Foldats was called in to respond to questions and he did so to the best of his ability.

      While I have no quarrel with the Auditor General, I think his situation is quite different.

      We really don’t want to stir the pot here or to suggest that civil servants should fear to speak the truth.  Honest, forthright responses, especially when one is required to do so in no place less than in what is supposed to be the strongest bastion of our democracy, must only garner respect.  I am sure that the MLAs, above all, appreciate that. 

       

       

      • islandman says:

        Sure they do!…there’s so much evidence to suggest that. Can i have some of what you’re smoking?…

        I wish what you said were true…but we only have to watch our politicians response to questions asked to conclude that they would rather no one question their always brilliant ideas/statements.

         

      • Jingo Jango says:

        i really thought you were trying to be sarcastic with your speak the truth comment… 

        the government’s review and proposals regarding legal aid is either the dumbest or most evil thing I have heard in a long time… i would like to think the former

  4. Need for Change says:

    Change change change, that is whatis needed, these people that run this department have been too comfortable in their positions far too long! They dont care about anyone out there! They can start by cutting some of the cost out of legal aid department by putting Children MAintenance back in the Maintenance Department.

    • Anonymous says:

      Why change for change’s sake? You have a department which is run with very few staff, delivering a service at a cost which is less than 50% of market rate, and to which the only alternative on the table is a untried system which will cost more and has been dreamed up largely as a result of political cronyism rather than any balanced and objective assessment of how the system might be improved. Not exactly a compelling case for change.

      Putting Child Maintenance back in the Maintenance Department might cut the cost of legal aid, but of course would increase the cost of the Maintenance Department, so that isn’t really a saving at all, is it? Unless you think that bringing the legendary streamlined efficiency of the Civil Service to bear on the issue is likely to make things cheaper…

  5. Person says:

    Appalled at Mr. Solomon’s accusations and clear lack of understanding of the facts of this situation. I despair that this is one of the men who will be responsible for the implementation of legal aid improvements when he is clearly clueless! I sincerely hope the findings from PAC will guide this government to some sensible solutions rather than the foolishness they have been pursuing of late. I congratulate Mr. Foldats for ably presenting thefacts to the PAC.

     

     

    • incognito says:

      I don’t understand why this post would get a negative rating? It was not bias are untrue, yet someone gave it a thumbs down??

      Sometime you have to wonder about what people want for this country..

    • Anonymous says:

      I, too, add my congratulations to Mr. Foldats.  His responses read like a breath of fresh air.