THE RIVERINA'S criminal lawyers have welcomed a long-awaited funding boost to alleviate the state's chronically underfunded legal aid system.
Today State Attorney-General Mark Speakman announced that the government will inject $88 million over the next four years to create a fairer and more efficient justice system.
It is the first funding allocated after a 12-year freeze.
Mr Speakman said it would reform the way private lawyers provide legal representation to economically disadvantaged people.
"Legal Aid NSW relies on private lawyers in almost 70 per cent of all cases run using legal aid funding," he said.
"In regional areas that number rises to 80 per cent.
"This injection of funding will enable greater access to legal representation for disadvantaged people and help create a more sustainable system for small country law firms supporting communities through the worst drought in a century."
Wagga-based lawyer David Barron, who has been in criminal law for more than 25 years, said the funding is welcomed after waiting more than a decade.
"What it means for defendants is that a private lawyer is more inclined to take on a legal aid case," Mr Barron said.
"Certainly, any sort of increase is going to help clients who rely on legal aid."
Mr Barron said that while Wagga has a Legal Aid NSW office and private lawyers usually take on Legal Aid matters only when it has a conflict of interest, the funding boost would benefit surrounding towns more.
"I do work in Cootamundra, Tumut, Young, Griffith and Narrandera and they all don't have Legal Aid offices so they rely on private lawyers," he said.
While Mr Barron said the news is positive, there is more than can be done.
"The Legal Aid rates are about one-third of private fees at the moment," he said.
"There is also nothing to keep up with inflation rate or increasing costs we've had as lawyers."
He also said that travel costs for private lawyers taking on Legal Aid cases need to be addressed in future initiatives.
The reforms will allow the Legal Aid NSW Board to increase lawyers' hourly rates progressively to levels comparable with other states and territories.
Solicitors' hourly rates will rise progressively from the current $150 to $195 in 2023-24, with barristers' fees also increasing over the same period.
It also includes structural changes aimed at increasing allocations for lawyers to undertake critical pre-trial work with their clients to prepare for criminal matters.
Zac Tankard, another, Wagga-based lawyer, said the increase "has been a long time coming".
"Of course a balance must be struck," he said.
"There is only so much money to be put into justice issues - most in the community, including the lawyers, understand this. But, with solicitors conducting legally aided matters needing to do so much more these days, the increase in funding is welcomed."
With solicitors conducting legally aided matters needing to do so much more these days, the increase in funding is welcomed.Zac Tankard, Wagga solicitor
Like Mr Barron, Mr Tankard said more can be improved. He said that even at $200 per hour, it is about half the commercial rate.
"But it is very unlikely to be increased in the short to medium term," he said.
"In conducting Legal Aid work in the first place, there is an acknowledgment that there should be some giving back to the community.
"As lawyers, we should do this to some degree."
Mr Tankard said more funding also needs to be given to the Legal Aid online scheme and grants need an update
"Ongoing and updated legal training for private solicitors conducting legally aided duty matters should be considered, to ensure the highest skill levels," he said.
Law society backs funding
The NSW Law Society, which represents the state's 34,000 solicitors, welcomed the news.
President Elizabeth Espinosa congratulated Mr Speakman for listening to and responding to ongoing pleas from the state's legal profession for more funding.
"This funding will benefit vulnerable people in our community, people at the lowest end of the poverty threshold, who are struggling to deal with family violence, criminal and debt matters, who will now have better access to legal advice and services," Ms Espinosa said.
She said many regional solicitors have been providing many hours of pro bono service in the absence of adequate funding.
'Too little, too late'
Meanwhile, NSW Bar Association president Tim Game, SC, said that while it is a positive first step, a one-off investment staggered over four years would not adequately provide continued funding security for the system.
"The $88 million announced is only about a third of what Legal Aid NSW advised was desperately needed," Mr Game said.
"The urgently requested increase of $236.8 million would have potentially reduced trial lengths in the District Court."
Shadow Attorney-General Paul Lynch said the funding "is too little, too late".
"The total amount is only a fraction of the amount requested earlier this year by the government's own body - the Legal Aid Commission," Mr Lynch said.
"The government has been happy to let this meander to a crisis but the first increase - a minor one - won't start until the middle of next year.
It's illusory to think this will resolve the problem.Paul Lynch, Shadow Attorney-General
"It's illusory to think this will resolve the problem."
Mr Lynch said the amounts that will be paid to private solicitors on these rates "will still be dramatically less than the amount paid to government lawyers in the same case".
"After no change since 2007, the government should have done better," he said.
These reforms build on the NSW Government's investments into the legal assistance sector, with the state already providing $224 million in funding to Legal Aid NSW in 2019-20.