The government's deep pockets always attract people wanting assistance. In earlier times when manufacturers couldn't compete on world markets they sought and received subsidies; farmers got tax write-offs and SMPs. Social casualties were helped too. In the 1980s the Government scrapped business and farming subsidies. But social engineering continued as our politicians helped an increasing array of people to more and more taxpayer money.
Some projects will always need state help. Health care, education, the disabled, and even areas like the arts, require funding. But some assistance has run amok and reflects the festering heap of trouble that thirty years of muddled welfare incentives have created at the bottom of the social heap. One such is legal aid.
Legal Aid in criminal cases first appeared in the 1950s but few people qualified. In 1969 Keith Holyoake's National Government, at the prompting of Ralph Hanan, widened eligibility to cover civil proceedings after studies showed that many poor people were the victims of unfairness because they weren't properly represented. All Legal Aid recipients were expected to pay something towards their representation. They still are. But little is collected, even though the sum required is small. These days many, even most qualifying for Legal Aid, are on the benefit tread-mill and can't afford even $50. Sadly, they are the ones who, disproportionate to their numbers, commit crimes. Result? In 1973 the net cost of Legal Aid was only $350,000 p.a.. Thirty years later an explosion of people caught in the poverty trap has meant that the net cost of Legal Aid last year was $82 million.
Ironically, a significant number pay next to nothing to be represented, while the rest of us dread having to pay for counsel even on a traffic offence. And, as we know, many/most of those who receive free representation can't or don't intend to pay fines should they be imposed.
What this adds up to is that the sorts of people who were unfairly disadvantaged in earlier times have been freed of most of the responsibility for their actions. Society has taken over. The tables have been almost completely turned. The bottom rungs of society churn away on welfare dependency, pleasing themselves about the law, confident they'll get their day in court if needed, plus an opportunity to give the fingers to the TV cameras. If they are imprisoned, they'll team up with their mates inside, and emerge refreshed and ready for more unaccountable offending. "My offence is your responsibility" is their theme song.
The social and monetary costs of all this are huge. With so many people now locked into welfare dependency, the number of family break-ups escalates. And the overall cost of violent and property crimes goes with it. It's not just the recent twelve-week Legal Aid trial to convict a bunch of drug-crazed rat-bags of slaying an innocent pizza worker and bank teller.
Such trials push up the need for more courts and prisons, as well as Justice personnel. Police whose time could more profitably be spent solving crime are locked in court rooms for weeks on end, and jurors' lives and incomes are seriously disrupted.
Changes in 1991 to Legal Aid rules made it available for Waitangi Tribunal hearings too. And for some unexplained reason, at rates appropriate to Court of Appeal hearings! Law firms promptly created Treaty sections, and claimants also secured Crown Forest Rental Trust funding for researchers.
The Tribunal process slowed while demands for more public money, often generated by lawyers, pushed up costs. Justice delayed has become justice denied. The Legal Services Agency's (LSA) spending on the Waitangi process was $4 million in 2001. It topped $7.3 million last year. And that doesn't take into account extra funding for the Tribunal itself as the time spent on historical claims stretches out. In the late 1960s some called Legal Aid "lawyer promotion". While many lawyers avoid Legal Aid work, it provides bread and butter for others. Maori have been heard to call Legal Aid and the CFRT "the petrol pumps".
Everyone should be represented in a court case when personal liberty is at stake. But that doesn't mean taxpayers should fork out for endless appeals no matter what civil libertarians argue. Funding Waitangi Tribunal and fisheries claims should be reined in, and settlements speeded. The LSA's failure to consider the recent student extortionist's family's finances before granting Legal Aid was bizarre, as is the Johns family dispute that has been funded. The recently-announced pilot public defender scheme where salaried lawyers will handle cases in Auckland and Manukau might reduce costs a little.
But the principles behind Legal Aid need more careful scrutiny. The new system will never solve runaway costs until there is a political willingness to tackle both welfare dependency that drives so many Legal Aid claims, and the mischievous attitudes towards crime amongst so many of its clients. When will our politicians begin tackling the tough issues?