Legal Aid NSW has announced changes to the way it engages with the private legal profession in what CEO Brendan Thomas describes as a major overhaul designed to better support private lawyers.
The reforms come after almost two years of consultation with private solicitors, barristers, the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Bar Association.
Thomas said some “pain points” were raised repeatedly during consultation – including that fees paid by Legal Aid NSW were too low, that the panel application process was inconsistent and time-consuming, and that grants approvals were frequently delayed.
“What we heard over and over during those conversations was that private lawyers simply did not feel valued by Legal Aid NSW, and that was of serious concern to us,” Thomas said.
“Private lawyers appear in almost three quarters of our ongoing casework matters and 40 per cent of our duty services. We cannot do what we do without the private legal profession. So we want to make it easier for more private lawyers to do business with us, but we also want to do a better job of engaging with the profession.”
Legal Aid NSW last year secured additional NSW Government funding to increase the fees it pays solicitors and barristers to undertake legal aid work.
It also sought amendments to the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979 (NSW), which are due to commence on 13 July, and aim to streamline panel processes.
Under the changes, Legal Aid NSW will engage with law firms – including sole practitioners – directly, and panel applications may be made at any time.
The principal of a law firm will only have to submit one application for all Legal Aid NSW panels, and once appointed to a panel they will no longer need to apply for reappointment.
Legal Aid NSW will also offer private lawyers more training and support.
Thomas said that over the coming year, Legal Aid NSW intends to establish clear standards for what is expected of private lawyers and commit to intervening earlier should any issues arise around the quality of services provided to clients.