A good idea from New York – young lawyers should earn their ticket by working for free for a while

Alf has been minded of our hefty legal-aid bill in recent times.

And its drain on the public purse.

His hackles were raised by news that the legal aid bill for David Bain’s retrial was $3.33m, the highest amount in legal history.

New Zealand’s legal history, presumably.

The Ministry of Justice said that the final figure for Bain’s defence was $3.33 million.

Of that amount, $2.33 million went towards the retrial costs and almost $1 million was paid for expenses in the retrial like research, investigators and forensics.

Lawyer’s fees throughout the High Court, Court of Appeal and retrial process amounted to $1.77 million of the total bill.

Bain’s lawyer, Michael Reed QC, told Radio NZ most of the costs of the retrial were to pay for overseas experts.

Bain is not receiving legal aid in his bid for compensation.

Then came a report saying New Zealand had spent a billion dollars on legal aid since 2000.

The five most expensive criminal legal aid grants were made in cases either discharged, or where the defendant was found to be innocent.

They were complex cases – all were homicides, and in each case legal aid played a crucial role in serving up a better quality of justice.

A better quality of justice?

What does that mean?

Highly paid barristers, by the looks of it.

The accused – Murray Foreman, Chris Kahui, Zion King and David Bain – had some of the best lawyers in the business, Law Society president Jonathan Temm said.

Enough’s enough.

Alf will be drawing Crusher’s Collins attention to what they are doing in New York.

The state, not the city.

Starting next year, New York will become the first state to require lawyers to perform unpaid work before being licensed to practice, the state’s chief judge announced on Tuesday, describing the rule as a way to help the growing number of people who cannot afford legal services.

Like it?

Sounds good to Alf, although the rookie lawyers might squawk about the consequences for their student loan interest rates.

Let’s find out a bit more.

The approximately 10,000 lawyers who apply to the New York State Bar each year will have to demonstrate that they have performed 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said. He said the move was intended to provide about a half-million hours of badly needed legal services to those with urgent problems, like foreclosure and domestic violence.

The need for these sorts of services has exploded in recent years.

It seems the economic crisis has resulted in more people struggling financially; more people needing legal services to cope with foreclosures, evictions and credit and employment problems that could push them into long-term poverty; and state and federal financing for legal services has plunged.

Dunno how much of that has been echoed in this country.

But in the US the Legal Aid Society, the nation’s largest provider of free legal services, turns away eight of every nine people seeking help with civil legal matters, according to Steven Banks, the New York group’s attorney in chief.

Since the economic downturn began in 2008, Mr. Banks said, requests for assistance have jumped 40 percent for health care issues, 54 percent for unemployment insurance and work-related problems, 16 percent for domestic violence and “a stunning 800 percent” for foreclosures.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to free legal representation.

But defendants in civil cases — as well as people who need legal help for essential needs like applying for disability benefits — do not.

The article where Alf spotted this news said Judge Lippman has been at the helm of the state’s court system for three years.

In that time he is credited with having made New York a national model and has been praised in the legal profession by addressing what he calls the justice gap, allocating millions of dollars from the courts’ administrative budget for free legal services and making it easier for retired lawyers to take pro bono cases.

But sure enough, his admirers are saying his latest idea has run into controversy

… because it wades into a fierce debate among lawyers over whether mandatory pro bono service is the right solution — and because it could hit the pocketbooks of young lawyers at a time when they are struggling to find jobs.

But Judge Lippman and the court administrative board have the power to go ahead anyway because, unlike in many other states, the New York court system, and not the bar association, sets the requirements.

In the recent Stuff story, our Law Society’s Jonathan Temm was banging on about the “best lawyers” moving away from legal aid because – he tells us – they are so frustrated by recent changes.

“Injustices are clearly going to result and the Government has been told,” he said.

But Alf was more interested in that bit of the story which said
Government spending on legal aid had more than doubled in the last decade, growing from just over $75 million in 2000/01 to $169m in the 2010/11 financial year.

Anyone who receives legal aid may be required to repay some of the costs, but in practice, most people who receive criminal legal aid are not required to make repayments.

A raft of changes to legal aid have been instated or proposed. They include the introduction of fixed fees, changes to eligibility criteria and more active management of high cost cases, which would require lawyers to provide estimates before starting work.

The Law Society has expressed its dismay at the changes, saying the fixed rates are so low there will be a “fundamental impact on quality and focus of lawyers who continue to provide legal aid”.

This means lawyers who have done legal aid work for a long time have stopped, so those facing charges now have a much smaller pool of lawyers to draw from.

The New York idea looks good to Alf, in these circumstances.

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