REVEALED: The millionaire Legal Aid lawyers?

SIX FIRMS of solicitors were paid more than $1 million each in taxpayer-funded legal aid in a year while 20 others each raked in more than $500,000, startling new figures reveal.

In a graphic illustration of the legal aid gravy train, the Ministry of Justice figures show total payments to legal aid providers in the year to 30 June 2015 were up 4.5 per cent on the previous year to $130.216 million, from $124.58 million paid in the previous year.

Payments made in the latest year were just behind the total payments in the year to 30 June 2013 ($130.259 million) and a long way behind the total payments made in the year to 30 June 2012, when they totalled $148.3 million.

The payments – which are GST exclusive – include the fees of listed providers, including those claimed on behalf of other listed providers, and disbursements for general office costs, travel costs, and special disbursements, which include fees for agents, expert witnesses, forensic tests, interpreters and special reports, such as medical or valuation reports.

During the year to 30 June 2015, payments were made to 1224 listed providers – down slightly from the 1240 in the previous year. This meant the average payment per provider was $106,385.58, compared with $100,467.92 the previous year.

The median payment (received by the middle provider) was $68,147.22. Six providers received payments totaling over $1 million, and 20 received payments totaling between $500,000 and $1 million.

There were 793 providers – 65 per cent of the total – who received payments of less than $100,000, and 345 of these (28 per cent of all providers who received a payment) received payments of less than $30,000.

The highest payment was to Wellington firm Cooper Legal who received a staggering $1.373 million for the year to June.  

Law firms or solicitors who received $1 million-plus were David Stone ($1.2 million), Morrison Kent ($1.2 million), Ross Burns ($1.35 million), Tamaki Legal ($1.1 million) and Tavake Afeaki ($1 million).

There were others who almost reached the $1 million mark – Whakatane’s Gowing and Co Lawyers with $809,073 in legal aid payments, Wellington’s John Miller Law with $910,300, Hamilton’s McCaw Lewis Ltd with $979,716, the Law Store in Porirua with $754,830, Thomas Dewar Sziranyi Letts of Lower Hut with $883,109, Wackrow Willliams and Davies with $852,212 and Zindels of Nelson with $769,802.

The legal aid system is an attempt to ensure government-funded legal representation for those who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyer for criminal, family, civil, and Waitangi Tribunal hearings. It has been repeatedly changed as governments struggle to keep a lid on costs that have ballooned from $111 million in 2006-7 to $169m in 2010-11.

In 2012, three years after the controversial Dame Margaret Bazley report into legal aid, the system for payments to lawyers underwent a major shakeup. The report found systemwide failings in legal aid and called for urgent action to rebuild trust in the system.

Under new changes implemented as a result of that report, lawyers are now paid a fixed fee for legal aid work, depending on how serious the charges are. In the past lawyers were paid fees based on an hourly rate.

In her report, Dame Margaret claimed that the justice system had been undermined by more than 200 corrupt lawyers who were rorting the taxpayer-funded system.

She also also accused lawyers of taking backhanders, charging illegal “top-up” fees and grouping together to defraud the legal aid system.

Although Dame Margaret said the allegations could not be substantiated, she alleged that up to 80 per cent of lawyers at Manukau District Court had been”gaming” the legal aid system.


Legal Aid Payments to Firms – 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2015


cookStephen Cook is a multi award winning journalist and former news editor and assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday.

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