My initial reaction to the news that Victoria Legal Aid will be changing its rates to a “whole of job” structure was not particularly positive.
It will reward legal practitioners who apply pressure to their clients to plead guilty and resolve the matter quickly, whilst punishing those who vigorously defend their clients from allegations of crimes of which they are not guilty. Those who successfully advise their clients to plead up and get it over with, straight away, will do better than they do now. Those who assess the evidence more critically, and who successfully advise their clients to defend themselves properly will find themselves doing appearances effectively for free.
In the real world, despite the commitment to their duty as responsible officers of the court that is the hallmark of the vast majority of the profession, it seems to me that this proposed system will make it more likely that the innocent will pressured into pleading guilty. That our jail population will expand with residents who should never have been placed there.
And why? In order to save the taxpayer a few dollars. Well, a few dollars from the VLA fund – if more people are getting locked up, the taxpayer will just have to spend that money (probably more) on prisons instead, so it’s not really a saving. More a transfer of money from one area of the Department of Justice to the next.
But, even if it was going to save some money – isn’t the point of our legal system to achieve, as best we can, some form of justice? How is making it harder for those charged with crimes to defend themselves supposed to do anything but make a just result less likely?
When will we enter this glorious new world?
An implementation date for the new fee structure of 1 January 2011 has been set. There are likely to be further discussions before the final model is implemented. The Law Institute isn’t happy about the proposed changes, and after a couple of years of behind-the-scenes negotiation is starting to voice its dissatisfaction publicly.
I wish them luck with that. Sadly, coming at the end of a long review, I can’t see the Government resiling from this fundamentally broken approach.
ELSEWHERE: The copyright industry overseas, where lawyers don’t mind being dodgy.