DPA strongly supports the Legal Services Amendment Bill’s intention of improving access to legal aid services for people on low incomes by removing the user charge payment and interest charged on unpaid legal aid debt.
While the removal of such charges will improve access to legal services for disabled people, there is much more that needs to be done to ensure disabled people have the equitable access to justice.
The amount lawyers are paid for legal aid work now means that very few lawyers are prepared to do legal aid work because it is so poorly paid.
When working with disabled people it often takes lawyers more time that they may not be financially covered for as they receive limited funding from legal aid work. For example, lawyers may need to:
- Spend more time with, and have communications assistants for, people with learning disabilities, cognitive impairments or brain injuries, for them to understand the legal process.
- Provide information in the best format.
- Have access to New Zealand Sign Language interpreters
- Spend more travel time on meeting disabled clients away from their offices as many are not accessible to people with mobility impairments.
Not having the right support person, whether they’re professional or a whānau member, can present a real barrier to a disabled person accessing legal services and ultimately, justice.
Legal aid needs to be free. It needs to be far more accessible. Lawyers need to be able to bill the time that they spend, rather than be incentivised to spend less time on cases with caps on legal aid, or not want to take cases involving disabled people because they won’t be reimbursed for the extra time involved.
Lawyers in many cases must act pro bono to be able to give enough time to disabled clients, as the cost of the additional work they are required to do may not be covered by legal aid.
The outcome for many groups and individuals within the disabled community is that they are disadvantaged and they have real problems accessing justice.
Read the full DPA Submission on the Legal Services Amendment Bill [Word Doc]