(CNS): After “many false starts”, the long awaited legal aid bill passed through the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, paving the way for more means-testing of those who receive legal aid. It will also hand the decision to grant cover to a director of legal aid, meet the requirements of the Bill of Rights and cap the hours and total bill for lawyers working on legal aid cases. But the law also gives lawyers who do legal aid work a raise for the first time in 12 years, increasing the rate from $135 to $160.
Noting that there had always been concerns over the money spent on legal aid for criminal cases, Premier Alden McLaughlin said the Bill of Rights required everyone to get a fair trial. He said the goal of the new bill was to both manage the costs and meet those requirements. While the law was unlikely to solve all the problems relating to covering the legal costs of those who can’t afford representation, he said, the legislation was a proper modern framework to contain those costs.
Concerns were raised about the law by East End MLA Arden McLean regarding the threat to judicial independence, with a civil servant set to make the decisions about who gets what, and he also queried why foreign lawyers were not required to do pro bono work. However, the law was broadly supported by members.
The bill was presented by the Attorney General Samuel Bulgin, who said it would provide for more efficient management of the legal aid regime. He outlined the new more intense scrutiny of assets and means testing, giving greater powers of recovery of contributions from people to the costs, the caps on time and cash for lawyers doing legal aid work and the creation of a new director of legal aid.
The AG said that the legal aid system worked and provided a high caliber of representation and good value for money, and various reports and reviews had concluded it was still cheaper than a public defender’s office, despite costs. But the introduction of a more robust means testing regime, he said, would help to recover contributions from people for their legal aid representation. He also said greater oversight and the caps of ten hours of legal aid work and a limit of $20k per case would help control costs.