Letters to the Editor: Legal Aid good news story

I
write in response to the article titled Legal Aid Audit Reveals Confusion
published in your 30 March, 2010, edition.

It
is unfortunate that your reporter chose to focus on the negative elements of
the Auditor General’s report rather than on the more important positive
findings; or perhaps your reporter was not directed to the positive aspects of
the report.

In
any event, I refer you to paragraph 4.09 of the report wherein the Auditor
General states “The [Law Reform Commission] report, published in July 2008,
concluded that the ‘present system of provision of legal aid services by the
private bar in general offers good value-for-money’”. Based on our review of
the Law Reform Commission report and corroborative information we have reviewed
as part of this audit, it would appear that this conclusion is both reasonable
and plausible”. Hence, your headline could have read “Legal Aid audit reveals programme
is good value-for-money” – boring, but true.

Additionally
at paragraph 1.03 of the report, the Auditor General states “I concluded that
the [Legal Aid] Program is managed in accordance with the Legal Aid Law by the
Judicial Administration, though it does not have sufficient guidance in place
for processing legal aid applications and payments on a fair and consistent
basis”. Hence, your headline could also have read “Legal Aid audit reveals programme
is managed in accordance with the law” – again, boring, but true.

Finally,
at paragraph 5.02, the Auditor General states “… we concluded that the legal
aid funding was properly distributed to those who are entitled to receiving it
and administered with relatively few resources”. Hence, your headline could
have read “Legal Aid audit reveals Legal Aid funds properly distributed” –
again, boring, but true.

No
programme is without faults; improvement, however, comes at a price – funding
and legislative change are required, both of which are beyond the control of
the Judicial Administration.

The
Chief Justice has long supported the need for legislative reform of the legal
aid regime, and his call for reform led to the work and recommendations of the
Law Reform Commission in 2008. This administration agrees with and awaits the
implementation of those recommendations. Additional funding will be required
for the post of Legal Aid administrator but additional funding, as we all know,
is virtually unattainable in the current economic environment. Our legal aid
scheme struggles along as best it can with one legal aid officer supporting an
out-dated system that is chronically under-funded.

Your
article also contains inaccurate and unbalanced statements. The audit manager
is quoted as saying “It’s just a free-for-all there … There are basically no
financial records being maintained”. This is an inaccurate statement, which
does not fit with the findings in the audit report itself. In fact, complete financial
records are maintained by the Judicial Administration even if they are not all
together in a single centralised computer database.

The
only significant financial records that arise in legal aid matters are invoices
from attorneys and expert witnesses. These are reviewed, assessed and approved
for payment; all payments are recorded in the Government’s IRIS database. I am
not aware of any missing financial records and I invite the Auditor General to
point to missing invoices or undocumented payments.

The
same audit manager is also quoted as saying that, “Some [invoices] are in
files, some are in folders, some are sitting on the taxing officer’s desk, some
are sitting on the (legal aid administrator’s) desk”; this is characterised as
a “less-than-organised manner”. This is a surprising statement.

Invoices
must move from one location to the next in any entity to be properly processed.
An invoice is delivered by an attorney, the legal aid officer places the
invoice in the appropriate legal aid file which is then taken to the taxing
officer for processing, once processed the invoice is delivered to the accounts
office for payment. Invoices are in different physical locations throughout the
processing procedure – this is normal business practice. I do not understand
the criticism here.

A
number of other criticisms are raised about record-keeping. In this regard, I
wish to make only a few comments. Our records accurately disclose the amounts
that have been approved for payment at any given point in time. It is not
realistically feasible to determine “how much is owed to legal aid attorneys”
at any given point in time because attorneys do not, of course, bill on a daily
basis. Work by attorneys is ongoing and is billed at the conclusion of a case
or quarterly in complex matters. To determine an exact figure of what is owed
at any given point in time would require every attorney to submit a bill for
work completed up to that point in time regarding every existing legal aid case
– this would result in hundreds of bills. If the purpose of such an exercise is
to forecast future expenditures, then a reasonably accurate and more efficient
approach is to refer to the average historical monthly expenditure, which for
the past few years has been $150,000. Again, it is a matter of using scant
resources as effectively as possible.

In
conclusion, I would like to draw your readers’ attention to the fact that in
another setting earlier this year, the same audit manager characterised his audit
findings in relation to the legal aid system as a “good news story”. This
sentiment is not found anywhere in the article. Either the audit manager
repeated this statement to your reporter and your reporter ignored that sentiment,
or the audit manager, for whatever reason, withheld that statement. In either
case, the ultimate message in the article was unbalanced.

Our
legal aid scheme is a “good news story”. Of course it has faults, of course it
can be improved, but for the limited funds that are provided, it delivers good
value. Indeed, a careful reading of the audit report itself will make that
clear.

 I hope that my remarks have added some balance
to this issue.

Delene
Cacho

Court
Administrator

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