Major cuts to NSW legal Aid funding

STATE Government inspired cuts to legal aid will result in more people appearing unrepresented in criminal hearings, increasing their chances of going to jail.

Legal Aid NSW has confirmed the existence of a board decision to stop funding a large number of defended cases in the Local Court.

Officially the decision is a proposal and Legal Aid NSW is seeking opinion from the Law Society and Bar Association before finalising its format. This should happen in July or August.

Then a period of adjustment will follow as the decision percolates through the court system. By the beginning of next year it's likely to be fully functioning.

To meet the government's savings targets Legal Aid NSW has closed an office and accepted redundancies. The proposals to cut funding for legal representation is the next step.

For those at the coalface, like Grafton solicitor Greg Coombes, the prospect of cuts to legal aid concerns him.

He said from half to three quarters of the cases at court each week are Legal Aid funded. And he is not comfortable trying to second guess what cases are likely to attract a jail sentence.

"There are not that many charges that don't have the potential for a custodial sentence," he said.

Mr Coombes said more people appearing unrepresented at court will have repercussions for the legal system.

"While we're sitting at the bar table we hear what unrepresented people say to the magistrate and we cringe," he said.

These failures can be difficult to remedy if the decision is appealed at District Court.

"We can be hamstrung at the appeal," he said. "If we're appealing against a conviction we might have to ask leave to introduce new evidence and if there is not enough grounds for for it, we have to proceed with the evidence from their Local Court hearing."

Mr Coombes said it would also be distressing for people to spend time while they waited for bail or to see a solicitor about an appeal.

"When you consider the recent death in custody at Grafton Jail was a person in there on a driving matter, it's very unsatisfactory to rely on legal aid at the appeal stage," Mr Coombes said.

CEO of Legal Aid NSW Bill Grant said there are no easy cuts at legal aid.

"We are currently considering proposals to limit the availability of legal aid in Local Court defended hearings to defendants who are at risk of going to jail, including suspended sentence, intensive corrections orders, home detention or community service orders," he said.

"We are also considering exceptions to this.

"These exceptions will meant that legal aid may still be available to people who are before the Local Court and not at risk of jail but who have substantial difficulty dealing with the legal system, such as people who have a psychiatric condition or those people who have an intellectual, physical or developmental disability. These proposed changes do not affect services in the Children's Court."

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