According to a report on Newsroom.co.nz, duty lawyers are issuing a threat to cease their services due to a lack of pay increases spanning the past 25 years.
Janine Bonifant, a member of the New Zealand Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, stated that since duty lawyers are considered contractors, they are unable to form a union. However, they are likely to take a stance on the matter.
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Bonifant expressed concern that a crisis is imminent, and defense lawyers will not remain passive. She anticipated some form of action, although she emphasized that a mass withdrawal from duty lawyer rosters would not be desirable.
Duty lawyers are invested in assisting their clients, and such a drastic measure would impact the individuals they are dedicated to helping.
As a duty lawyer herself in the Porirua District Court, Bonifant noted that lawyers currently fulfill their duty with good intentions by diligently attending to duty lawyer rosters.
She said these rosters have been adequately staffed and serviced for an extended period.
Every duty lawyer she has encountered demonstrates a commitment to promptly resolving matters to the best of their abilities. However, the reality remains that the current rate of $88 per hour, particularly when factoring in travel expenses and parking fees, is barely sustainable.
While not exactly pro bono work, it closely resembles it, and it is unfeasible for lawyers to continue this arrangement on a weekly basis.
In 2006, the rate was increased by 10 percent from $80 to $88 per hour. However, the entire system is now at risk of collapse if those capable of fulfilling duty lawyer responsibilities refuse to participate, and new lawyers refrain from signing up. Without duty lawyers present to guide individuals facing charges, a significant proportion of whom may struggle to comprehend the legal system, the process would come to a halt.
Duty lawyers play a crucial role in explaining charges, interpreting police statements, making decisions regarding legal aid applications, and facilitating the proceedings for the individuals involved.
Justice Minister Kiri Allan assured that a review of the Duty Lawyer scheme would commence shortly. The review, conducted by the Legal Services Commissioner, will comprehensively assess various aspects of the service, including the remuneration for duty lawyers.
This initiative acknowledges the concerns expressed by legal professionals about hourly rates while also assessing the overall effectiveness of the service to ensure continued access to justice.
The minister has instructed officials to explore how any necessary changes to the system can be supported within the context of this review.
Allan also mentioned the introduction of a minimum payment policy earlier in the year, allowing duty lawyers to claim a minimum of four hours of attendance for weekend sessions and two hours for weekdays.
This policy encourages lawyers to make themselves available for Saturday rosters by guaranteeing a consistent, higher payment for their work. The duty lawyer review will also address the issue of rostering and coverage for Saturday courts.
Bonifant expressed skepticism about the impact of the minimum payment policy, as lawyers would be working for those hours regardless. She stressed that increasing payment for defense lawyers may not be politically appealing, but she urged the government to consider the repercussions carefully.