The new legislation removes interest on unpaid legal aid debt
The Legal Services Amendment Bill has been successfully passed, marking a series of reforms designed to enhance the accessibility of legal aid services.
Justice Minister Ginny Andersen announced that the bill would remove the interest on unpaid legal aid debt, improving access to justice by alleviating the financial burden on individuals seeking legal aid. Additionally, the government has removed the $50 user charge fee previously applicable to successful applicants for civil and family legal assistance.
“It’s extremely important that we have a legal aid scheme accessible for people who need it. These changes will give certainty to those using legal aid that they will not be subject to additional financial penalties when accessing justice,” Andersen said.
These changes are in response to an extensive review of the legal aid system conducted by the Ministry of Justice in 2018 and are part of the Budget 2022 package of $148.7m to strengthen the legal aid system. The 2018 review found that the $50 user charge fee disincentivised some applicants from applying for legal aid.
Alongside removing the user charge fee and the interest payment, the reforms also encompass a 15% increase in eligibility thresholds, expanding access to civil and family legal aid for an additional 93,000 individuals in the first year. This inclusivity will continue to grow annually by 1.9% until 2025. Moreover, repayment thresholds have been raised by 16.5%, relieving financial pressures for around 16,000 low-income New Zealanders.
Another crucial aspect of the reform involves a 12% increment in hourly rates for legal aid providers. This change is expected to improve the quality and availability of legal representation for a broader cross-section of society.
Andersen said, “Many people who couldn’t afford a lawyer will now be able to access proper legal representation, which will go a long way to ensuring our justice system is fit for purpose.”