Ministerial Statement: Annual Report Legal Aid Office 2013 – 2019
Mr. Speaker, I rise to update this Honourable House on the work of the Legal Aid Office and lay a copy of the document entitled ‘Annual Report Legal Aid Office, Fiscal period 2013 – 2019’ as submitted to the Minister by the Legal Aid Committee, in compliance with section 18 of the Legal Aid Act 1980 (“the Act”).
As the document’s title denotes, it covers the 7-year period between 1st of April 2013 and the 31st of March 2020. This brings the Committee’s statutory reporting obligations up-to-date.
Mr. Speaker, Members may know that Bermuda’s legal aid regime came into operation on 1st of November 1980 by way of the Legal Aid Act 1980. The Legal Aid Office has served the legal needs of Bermudians, who may not otherwise afford access to legal representation, for the past 40 years. The provision of Legal Aid service ensuresthat quality legal advice and representation is readily available, to individuals who meet a statutory financial means test. The delivery of this service is essential for fair access to justice, particularly in Bermuda where the high costs of legal services in the private sector can beprohibitive to most Bermudians.
Mr. Speaker, the Legal Aid Committee administers the internal administration of the scheme by reviewing Legal Aid applications; awarding Legal Aid Certificates for eligible persons; deciding the assignment of legal counsel;and managing the Duty Counsel Roster of lawyers givingfree legal advice to unrepresented defendants appearing in the lower courts. The work of the Committee and the day-to-day management and operations are the responsibility of the Senior Legal Aid Counsel. The Legal Aid Office is also comprised of three (3) in-house Legal Aid Counsel and three (3) administrative posts. Ongoingrecruitment drives are underway to fill all posts substantively. In the interim, the Legal Aid Office has been staffed temporarily by qualified barristers with the professional experience to manage the range and complexity of the typical case types where Legal Aid Certificates are issued.
Mr. Speaker, the Report highlights that a new framework for the assignment of Counsel under the Legal Aid Act 1980 was officially implemented on 1st March 2019, although it was developed in 2018. The changes were devised alongside a host of cost-savings reform measuresacross government. The justification for implementing an in-house staff Counsel model was in recognition that operational efficiencies and savings; institutional knowledge-building; and providing opportunities for a cadre of specialized Bermudian defence lawyers would offer better delivery of services within public spending limitations. The new model ensures that as many legal services as can now be delivered by in-house staff Counsel, will be delivered in lieu of overly-utilizing outside Counsel. This has resulted in a containment of costs. The logic is simple, and the results are proven. Salaried staff Counsel attending Court frequently, inclusive of the Senior Legal Aid Counsel, costs less than awarding assistance via billable hours from Counsel in private practice. The in-house Counsel capacity continues to grow and although the revised model is only partially deployed,it has resulted in measurable savings thus far.
Mr. Speaker, cost savings are evident by making the following comparisons. In the 2012/13 financial year, the total cost of the operation was over two and a half million dollars (i.e. $2,665,344) for the year. By the financial year 2019/20 there was a relative annual cost reduction to less than one and a half million dollars ($1,323,142). TheReport captures this downward trend in costs over the reporting years. It is anticipated that when all posts arefilled substantively, and with sufficient time for embedding the new model, sustainable cost reductions and greater operational efficiencies will continue, in keeping with the objectives of the model.
Mr. Speaker, there have been other less dramatic, but equally notable developments during the reported period. It is worth repeating for the Hansard, the Chairman’s comments that—
“... [although] the volume of legal aid certificates sought and granted has declined, the volume of work related to the weekly Committee meetings has increased steadily over the periods under review. The complexity of cases as well as the number of multiple and youthful defendant trials resulted in an increase in counsel submissions, opinions, requests for specialist reports and, at the early stages covered by this report, the services of Queen's Counsel.”
The Chairman also recognizes the significance of these developments upon applicants' access to justice, the administration of justice itself, and the development of Bermudian jurisprudence. He goes on to point out the significance as it relates not only to the most serious offence of murder, but also other serious crimes and theirimpact on the Legal Aid system. The trend was also cited for its unavoidable impact on the treatment of youth offenders which is so vital to the viability of our justice system, not to mention civil litigation concerning children.
Mr. Speaker, output measures cited in the Report reaffirm that efficiency has not been compromised in the Legal Aid Office, notwithstanding the changes to its operations. The Office has retained the ability to process Legal Aid Certificate applications within fourteen (14) working days. Of course, this is dependent upon applicants submittingthe required information in a timely manner. It was further cited that a primary area of delay in the vetting and approval of certificates is a lack of information from applicants that highlights the precise nature of the type of legal assistance that they seek. The Office has remedied this by modifying the application process to better capture the information needed for the Committee to make a decision on the application.
Moreover, Mr. Speaker, the Legal Aid Office continues to process applications for Temporary Certificates, more commonly known as emergency certificates, within three (3) working days. This 3-day target is achieved when all relevant information is submitted at the time of application.This quick response time is an indicator of the efficiency of the administrative operations of the Legal Aid Office as applications for emergency certificates are approved by the Senior Legal Aid Counsel, provided they fall below a capped amount. Emergency certificates are then ratified by the Committee within twenty eight (28) days.
Mr. Speaker, The Chairman concludes the Report by acknowledging that Committee members are volunteers,who give of their time and experience at the weekly meetings to carry out the very demanding mandate as prescribed in the Act. He extends appreciation for Members’ hard work and dedication and applauds their commitment to quality service delivery during the period covered.
Mr. Speaker, I conclude by amplifying the Chairman’s expressions of gratitude to the Legal Aid Committee Members for the selfless duty they uniquely give to the maintenance of access to justice in Bermuda. I am obliged to the Chairman for his steady stewardship during reforms to the model. Thanks, also, to all of the public officers, staff, Duty Counsel, law pupils and others who have served to support the work of the Legal Aid Office. I publicly acknowledge the supervision of the Senior Legal Aid Counsel, Susan Moore-Williams, who is now on temporary re-assignment, but has led the Legal Aid Office for over a decade. Also, Mrs. Angela Julio, the Office Manager, deserves recognition for being steadfast in sustaining the delivery of services during periods of transition.
Thank You, Mr. Speaker