Legal Aid Queensland lawyers say lower wages are causing an exodus and ‘huge injustices in the legal system’

Brisbane lawyer Brittany White has been working on a big case for over a year.

This is a complex case that involves mental health issues, which has led to it being sent back in and out of court while reports and evidence are finalized and submitted.

Ms White has yet to be paid a penny for her work and even when the case is finally over she says she will only receive $660.80.

“It’s costing me money – the number of calls I have to make, the number of transactions I have [with] the public guardian who deals with [my client]. The only reason I’m keeping the case is for ethical reasons,” Ms White said.

The case was one Ms White took over from Legal Aid Queensland (LAQ).

Payments for such cases are determined by strict subsidies set using funding that LAQ receives from state and federal governments.

The sum she expects to receive for more than a year’s work is the price of a day in the magistrates’ court. There is no guarantee that a lawyer will be paid more for more appearances.

Up to 80 per cent of legal aid cases in Queensland are handled by outside solicitors, like Ms White, known as preferred providers, under a mixed service delivery system with solicitors internal.

But the number of companies choosing to take on legal aid is decreasing.

The legal aid model “in danger”

Legal Aid Queensland said that in 2005 there were 440 companies on the Preferred Supplier Panel, while today there are only 308.

Legal aid allowances were initially calculated at 80% of the legal fee schedule and have grown in small increments over the past two decades.

The scale is now mainly used when someone has to pay another party’s costs and is already below market rates.

Former Queensland Law Society president Elizabeth Shearer said lawyers could not afford to continue doing legal aid work at the current rate.(Provided)

“The legal aid rate is now approaching around 50 per cent of the court scale,” said outgoing Queensland Law Society (QLS) President Elizabeth Shearer.

Ms Shearer said mixed service delivery was “a good model that has served Queensland and Australia well for many years”, but the system was “at risk”.

Ms White said shortcomings in the current system can lead to “huge inequities in the legal system”.

Attorney General Shannon Fentiman defended the rate of pay for attorneys representing those who could not afford legal representation, saying “the rates paid for legal aid work by preferred providers are within his budget.”

She said the organization aims to “deliver its services in the most effective, efficient and economical manner” and that she has met with representatives of the LAQ for ongoing discussions on funding and resources. .

“Operate at a loss”

Townsville attorney Zoe Navarro has worked tirelessly with youths embroiled in justice, but at the end of last year she pulled out of the youth crime panel.

Ms. Navarro’s company hasn’t been the only one to shy away from working on youth crime.

In 2005, 11 businesses were part of the Townsville Area Youth Crime Panel and in 2012, a Domestic Violence Panel was created which included 13 local businesses.

Today there are only four on each of the Townsville area signs, which stretches south to Bowen and west to Charters Towers.

Zoe Navarro, Townsville attorney
Townsville attorney Zoe Navarro’s office no longer works on juvenile crime cases.(ABC News: Lily Nothling)

Ms Navarro also resigned from the domestic violence panel in Townsville, which cut her legal aid in half.

Data provided by QLS indicated that of its more than 2,500 members, less than 800 were based outside South East Queensland, and a lack of rural and regional lawyers had long been flagged as a potential threat to justice. across Australia.

Ms Navarro works for a charity and is cutting her work drastically, but she said the amount she was paid for legal aid work didn’t even compare to that.

“I discount my fees, so I charge them between a third and a half of what I would normally charge, and that’s always at least double what I get for representing people on legal aid rates.

An imbalance of resources

In 2014, the Productivity Commission estimated that only 8% of households were likely to meet the income and wealth criteria for legal aid, while the Council of Social Services estimated that 13.6% of Australians lived in poverty.

Ms. Shearer, who is also chair of the QLS Pro Bono Access to Justice Committee, is extremely concerned about this discrepancy.

“So not even everyone living in poverty is financially eligible for legal aid, let alone everyone else in the community who might need legal assistance,” she said.

Ms Shearer said she thought the way the government funded the criminal justice system was unbalanced.

Sign for Legal Aid Queensland on its building in Brisbane's CBD.
As the rate of pay for legal aid lawyers has gone down, the number of law firms choosing to take on legal aid work has also gone down.(ABC News: Lucas Hill)

“The government will appoint more police and maybe put more resources into prosecutions and maybe more resources into the courts,” she said.

“But we don’t have a model in Queensland that’s really followed that says ‘if you do this at one end of the system, then at the other end you need more resources for defendant representation’. “

The attorney general said the LAQ’s means test was applied to ensure “legal assistance was provided to those who needed it most”.

Whether a person receives legal aid or not is also dictated by how long they will remain behind bars, if found guilty.

“We may have rights on paper, but without a lawyer to take your case to the court or tribunal that hears it, you can’t be sure you can exercise your rights.”

The 2014 Productivity Commission report recommended expanding the test both in terms of legal areas and the number of households eligible for legal aid.

Legal Aid Queensland said the organization supports this recommendation.

The proposed solutions

In a letter sent to Queensland Treasurer Cameron Dick and Attorney General Shannon Fentiman in November last year, Ms Shearer, then chair of QLS, said there were a number of solutions on the table.

The organization primarily advocated for raising grants to reflect the work required for strong legal representation, but it also noted the inflexible nature of lump sum payments.

“Depending on the complexity and nuance of the case, preparation may reasonably take significantly longer than the hours covered by the lump sum payment,” the letter states.

Ms Shearer said most of the cases were serious criminal charges which “generally require a case conference element and sentencing list with substantial preparation”.

Ms White said legal aid cases could suffer from “delays of years or more” due to their complexity, particularly if the case had been referred to mental health court.

The letter from QLS stated that a key step towards improving the system would simply be to increase funding for LAQ, and pointed out that in New South Wales the preferred provider rate was increased to $195 from the hour over four years.

Ms Shearer and QLS suggested that a percentage of the proceeds of crime seized in Queensland should be ‘invested back into legal aid’.

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