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Annual Report 2014 - 2015

Private lawyers

Legal Aid NSW works in partnership with private lawyers, who receive funding from us to represent legally aided clients in assigned matters.

Fact file
Total Grants staff: 67
Total applications for legal aid: 44,205
in criminal law 24,782
in family law 17,295
in civil law 2,128
Appointments on 12 panels 4,980
Percentage of legally aided case and duty services provided by private lawyers 41.8

Private lawyers are appointed to Legal Aid NSW panels under sections 49 to 52B of the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979.

In 2014-2015, private lawyers provided 41.8 per cent of Legal Aid NSW case and duty services. More details appear in Appendix 6.

The Grants Division of Legal Aid NSW (Grants) receives, determines and manages legal aid applications from private lawyers and the Legal Aid NSW inhouse practice. Applications are submitted and managed electronically. Grants has regular telephone contact with lawyers and clients.

OBJECTIVE: Access to justice

Record number of five-year reappointments increase efficiency

Panels operate in all areas of law, including general panels in criminal, family and civil law. There are specialist panels for care and protection, independent children's lawyers, serious criminal law, children's criminal law, mental health advocacy, veterans' law and domestic violence matters and for barristers briefed in complex criminal matters and criminal appellate matters.

In 2014-2015, there were 407 new applicants appointed to our panels, bringing the total number of appointments on all panels to 4,980. This is nine per cent more than the previous year.

In addition, Legal Aid NSW undertook the record reappointment of 1,110 current panel members whose five year appointments to various panels were due to expire throughout 2014- 2015. This increase saw the number of panel reappointments to new five-year terms rise by 250 per cent from the previous year. The efficient processing of reappointment applications ensures that panel lawyers continue to be available to represent legally aided clients.

The Specialist Barrister Panel for Appellate Criminal Law Matters was reopened for applications in 2015. An additional 35 barristers were appointed to that panel, 14 of whom were women, aligned with the New South Wales Government Equitable Briefing Policy.

Chart showing 5 year trend in Private lawyers on panels

OBJECTIVE: Excellence in legal services

Reviews aim to streamline panel processes

The selection criteria and processes for a number of panels were reviewed to identify ways to improve efficiency in the panel application and reappointment process.

Reviews of the General Criminal Law Panel and Mental Health Advocacy Panel were completed and the panels were reopened to new applicants and current panel members seeking reappointment in 2014. Both of these panels made use of a streamlined process for reappointment applications.

A review of the Independent Children's Lawyer (ICL) Panel was also completed and the panel reopened to new applicants and current panel members seeking reappointment in 2014. Changes to the selection criteria and selection process for the ICL Panel were informed by the outcomes from the 2013 Australian Institute of Family Studies report on the role of ICLs. The report highlighted the need for mechanisms for the selection, training and monitoring of ICLs to be strengthened.

The practice standards for the three reviewed panels were revised and updated to support better compliance from panel lawyers. Up-to-date versions of the practice standards are available in the Panels Audit and Practice Standards section of the Legal Aid NSW website.

Adjusted fees for expert reports ensure the best evidence is before the court

We simplified and updated our fee scale for Commonwealth family law matters to better reflect current court events and practice. We also increased the fees payable for single expert reports in Independent Children's Lawyer matters to ensure that the best possible evidence is before the court.

We simplified the fee scale for civil law work, removing distinctions between court types, standardising the calculation of advocacy rates and removing the historic rule that lawyers were only paid at 80 per cent of the published fees. This has made the costing of civil law matters much simpler for both private lawyers and Legal Aid NSW staff.

Resources were dedicated to improving our audit processes

"We implemented most of the efficiency recommendations from an auditor's review."

Based on recommendations from an external review, we improved efficiency through:

  • a new panel lawyer audit strategy, effective from 1 July 2014, with an emphasis on spot check audits that target claims and means verification and file audits for complaints and other matters;
  • a three-year audit plan that will be reviewed each year;
  • a new analytical tool to better analyse data and identify audit targets; and
  • a new audit module in our grants management system to manage audits and better record audit outcomes.

These initiatives and a high panel workload put a limit on the Professional Practices Branch (the Branch) audit resources this year; however there will be ongoing efficiencies from improved audit processes.

Online agreements are more efficient for private lawyers and staff

Private lawyers responded well to quicker, easier online service agreements. Since this facility was introduced in late 2014, private lawyers completed 1,370 service agreements online.

Spot check audits point to the need for training

A focus on spot check audits enabled the Branch to maintain a strong audit focus. This year, means test verification was the focus of spot check audits.

In total, 560 matters were audited. The two main issues that were identified related to proof of Centrelink entitlements and bank statements. As a result, the Branch recommended that training be provided for panel lawyers and identified policies requiring further clarification.

A spot check audit of 100 panel lawyers for variable unit claims was commenced in April 2015 and will conclude early in the next financial year.

File audits and follow up file audits

In addition to the spot check audits, 42 files were audited for five panel lawyers, resulting in refund requests of $11,713.

The major area of concern was unsatisfactory file management, which included: lack of adequate file notes of court attendances, no evidence on file to support additional preparation and no supporting evidence on file for claims made on disbursements.

Monitoring breaches of agreements

The Branch investigates apparent breaches by panel lawyers of panel service agreements and refers matters to the Monitoring Committee. The committee, which comprises nominees from the Law Society of NSW, the New South Wales Bar Association and Legal Aid NSW, then makes recommendations to Legal Aid NSW about lawyers who have breached panel service agreements.

During 2014-2015, the Branch investigated 57 serious complaints about panel lawyers and made eight referrals to the Monitoring Committee.

In all, the Monitoring Committee has considered 45 lawyers for apparent breaches of panel service agreements since 2010 with 26 of these matters considered in the last two years. More than 50 per cent of referrals to the Committee relate to the General Criminal Law Panel - the largest of the panels.

The year ahead

Reopen the Children's Criminal Law Panel for applications following a recent review of the panel requirements.

Commence reviews of the Specialist Domestic Violence Practitioner Panel and the Specialist Barrister Panel (Complex Criminal Law).

Improve the Grants Online IT system to enable lawyers to accept offers of work via mobile devices and to improve information security.

Fully implement the grants management audit module.

Increase the number of panel lawyer audits.