14 Apr 2011

Criticism unwarranted, says PDS head

8:45 am on 14 April 2011

The head of the Public Defence Service is defending it against criticism from private lawyers.

Among Government measures announced on Wednesday to curb the legal aid bill was a plan to expand the service, using its salaried staff instead of contracted lawyers to take on more of the legal aid cases.

Criminal lawyers are denouncing the move, saying it will eat into their earnings and is already driving some out of the profession, while the Criminal Bar Association says the change will lead to more miscarriages of justice and will actually cost the taxpayer more.

However the head of the Public Defence Service, Jonathan Down, told Morning Report the service gets lots of good feedback and the criticism is coming only from private lawyers.

"I get a lot of feedback from our other stakeholders including the judiciary and all of it is very positive, and much of that revolves around these issues of supervision, training and development."

In January, a Waitakere District Court judge criticised the service for assigning a young lawyer to defend an aggravated burglary charge.

The judge said having such a person represented by someone so inexperienced could well be a miscarriage of justice.

South Auckland criminal barrister Tudor Clee, who earned $431,000 from legal aid work last year, says that case is one of many showing the public defender's use of young lawyers is flawed.

He says they are unsupervised and often put in situations where they are dealing with complicated legal issues and difficult clients.

The Criminal Bar Association says the changes to the legal aid system will cost the taxpayer about $16 million more each year than the existing system.

The association's legal aid spokesperson, John Anderson, told Morning Report that using the Legal Services Agency's own figures, the Public Defence Service will cost about $250 more per case than independent lawyers - which totals about $16 million a year.

More early guilty pleas in PDS cases - study

Cases taken by the Public Defence Service have resulted in more immediate guilty pleas than those taken by private lawyers, a study has found.

A Victoria University study shows 47% of the cases the PDS handled had a guilty plea as a first plea, compared to 36% with private lawyers.

The Public Defence Service began as a pilot scheme in May 2004, and was made permanent in 2008. It operates in Auckland and Wellington at present and will be extended to the regions in due course.