Go to content

Annual Report 2019 - 2020

Private lawyers

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

Private lawyers are appointed to Legal Aid NSW panels under the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979 (NSW). This year, private lawyers provided 66.7 percent of all Legal Aid NSW casework services, and 37.9 percent of all Legal Aid NSW duty lawyer services. Further details appear in Appendix 5.

Number of private lawyers on Legal Aid NSW panels 2019–20*
General panels
General Civil Law Panel155
General Family Law Panel806
Summary Criminal Law Panel1,450
Specialist panels
Appellate Criminal Law Barrister Panel87
Care and Protection Panel**227
Children’s Criminal Law Panel186
Complex Criminal Law Barrister Panel105
Complex Criminal Law Solicitor Panel222
Domestic Violence Panel92
Independent Children’s Lawyer Panel153
Indictable Criminal Law Panel277
Indictable Criminal Law Barrister Panel440
Mental Health Advocacy Panel189
Veterans’ Law Panel4

* Some lawyers are active members of more than one panel
** Of the 227 Care and Protection Panel members, 145 are appointed to act for children as well as adults
Figures include current active panel members whose appointment start dates were before June 30, 2020.

Private lawyers represented legally-aided clients in a range of areas of law

Panel lawyers doing legal aid work are required to be a member of a Legal Aid NSW panel. Panels operate in all areas of law, including general panels in summary criminal law, family law and civil law, and specialist panels across the three practice areas. There are specialist barrister briefing panels covering indictable, complex, and appellate criminal law matters.

There are 2,152 individual lawyers and 1,712 registered firms who make up Legal Aid NSW panels throughout NSW.

There were 165 appointments and 102 reappointments made to Legal Aid NSW panels.

Improving the way we engage with private lawyers

Our relationship with the private profession is critical to delivering legal aid services across NSW. Two-thirds of all grants of aid are assigned to private lawyers. In some regional areas, private lawyers undertake 100 percent of all legal aid matters.

We received feedback from private lawyers about the way we support them to deliver services across NSW. Some of the things we heard included:

  • that they do not feel valued by Legal Aid NSW, and they are concerned we allocate work inequitably
  • the fees we pay are too low
  • our panels process is cumbersome and time consuming, and
  • we do not intervene early enough when concerns are raised about the quality of services being delivered.

We have responded to these concerns by reviewing our panels and grants process, and carrying out targeted consultation with the private profession.

We have also developed a comprehensive framework that sets out a process for engaging more meaningfully with the private profession that will include:

  • communicating clear quality standards
  • simplifying our panels process
  • proactively supporting panel members to deliver high-quality legal aid services, and
  • ensuring we intervene early when concerns are raised about the quality of the services delivered.

We started implementing the framework in 2019–2020 and will continue to do so next year. A key area of reform already underway is simplifying our panels process. To do this, we sought amendments to the Legal Aid Commission Act 1979 (NSW), which were passed in November 2019. The amendments will commence in July 2020. They will streamline our panels process and allow:

  • the principal of a law firm (including sole practitioners) to join on behalf of their practice
  • a single application form to join all panels, which can be made at any time, and
  • no reappointment process.

The amendments to the legislation will also remove the following requirements for our panels selection and removal process:

  • mandatory periods of appointments to panels
  • convening selection committees for appointment, reappointments, suspension and removal of panel lawyers, and
  • mandatory participation of the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Bar Association on those selection committees.

As well as simplifying our panels process, we will be implementing better quality assurance processes to ensure we provide more support and training, and that we intervene early where concerns are raised about the quality of services being delivered to our clients.

Review of fees paid to private lawyers

Last year we conducted a review of the fees we pay private lawyers who undertake legal aid work and submitted a business case to the NSW Government seeking additional funding to enable us to reform our fee scale.

In November 2019, the NSW Attorney General announced an allocation of $87.7 million in additional funding to Legal Aid NSW over four and a half years to support an increase in fees for panel lawyers for matters covered by state law.

This increase represented the single biggest injection of additional funds for private lawyer fees in the 40-year history of Legal Aid NSW.

The first of the private lawyer fee changes included a change to the Local Court state summary crime and Children’s Court summary crime fees. From January 1, 2020, Local Court and Children’s Court defended hearings were paid as a lump sum, which means private lawyers can claim the fees in one application, making the grants administration for private lawyers much more efficient.

Other changes included increasing the mileage rate in state matters and replacing the $100 lump sum for travel for grants of aid in state matters with a time-based payment.

On June 30, 2020 the Legal Aid NSW Board approved the first round of hourly rate increases in state matters. From July 1, 2020 the base hourly rate for solicitors in state matters will increase from $150 per hour to $160 per hour, with further yearly increases until fees reach $195 per hour by 2023–2024. Counsel’s fees and fees not based on the hourly rate will increase by 6.67 percent, and the funding of jail visits will increase.

During the year, we also worked with the profession to develop a fee scale for preparation in indictable crime matters. The final fee scale will be submitted to the Board for approval in the second half of 2020.

Reforms in our grants process

We continue to improve services to our clients by reforming our grants processes and making faster decisions about whether to grant legal aid. We increased our utilisation of automation in 2019–2020, resulting in less time taken to process applications for legal aid. We are now processing applications in days rather than weeks.

A number of reforms were implemented to improve the grants process this year, including:

  • Changes were made to the means test exemption rules for clients in custody, which allowed applications to be granted without requiring a discretion to be exercised to waive the contribution.
  • A new Commonwealth family law template was created to merge four existing application and extension templates.
  • We introduced bundled grants from criminal appeal and criminal trial matters, which resulted in increased automation for initial grants of aid and reduced determination times.
  • We commenced a work allocation pilot with four regional offices. The pilot changed how we manage applications submitted by private practitioners and resulted in increased automation and reduced determination times.
  • Amendments were made to increase approval levels and autonomy for legal officers, reducing the need to seek approval from senior solicitors and directors, therefore reducing the time taken to process tasks.
  • We reviewed our refusal clauses and updated them all to plain English to make it easier for clients to understand why a request for aid is refused.

Establishing the Private Lawyer Advisory Committee (PLAC)

This year we established a Private Lawyer Advisory Committee (PLAC) to improve the way we engage with the private profession. The PLAC is a forum for private lawyers to provide feedback about their engagement with Legal Aid NSW. It allows us to proactively work with private lawyers to better understand their needs and ensure our processes have no detrimental impact on their work.

The PLAC comprises three solicitors nominated by the practice areas, a solicitor nominated by the Law Society of NSW, and a barrister nominated by the NSW Bar Association. The PLAC meets with members of the Legal Aid NSW Executive, with our first of four-yearly meetings held in March 2020.

Year ahead iconThe year ahead

  • We will implement greater automation in the grants process to further reduce the time taken to determine the outcome of a grant.
  • We will finalise a clear and consistent approach to managing and supporting the quality of services provided by private practitioners.