Update on Legal Aid Services response to COVID-19

Brett Dooley, the Legal Services Commissioner, has sent legal aid providers an update on Legal Aid Services' response to the COVID-19 situation. This now follows:

Tēnā koutou katoa,
On behalf of Legal Aid Services, I would like to take the opportunity to give all our legal aid providers an update on our response to the COVID-19 situation.
I understand that this is a difficult time for everyone, and that many of you will be worried and have questions about how the Government’s response to COVID-19 will affect the functioning of Legal Aid Services.
Rest assured we are working hard to set in place continuity plans that will allow us to keep functioning and support the essential services that have been agreed by the judiciary(external link). We will also be continuing to pay invoices as quickly as we possibly can, however, we ask you to understand that usual service-levels may not always be possible in the current environment, as we are already functioning at reduced capacity.
Where possible we will be making changes to our current processes that will allow Legal Aid Providers to continue to work safely and remotely when needed. We have also made some decisions to re-prioritise our work programme that will hopefully alleviate any additional stress on you and enable you to focus on your own whanau and your business. These changes are listed below:
Signing legal aid forms 
We understand that given the current situation it may not be feasible to get a legal aid application form signed by an applicant. As a result, for the foreseeable future, legal aid will accept any applications that haven’t been signed by your client. Please sign legal aid forms on their behalf and state the reason on the form for not being able to obtain the signature.
Reduced assignments and duty lawyer coverage  
As I mentioned above, the priority services for the Courts going forward will now be to deal with custody matters. We appreciate, that this may have a financial impact for many of you with the cancellation of jury trials and the de-prioritisation of other assignments. For this reason, we are working closely with the Public Defence Service (PDS) and have agreed to reduce the number of future assignments assigned to them and similarly with duty lawyer rosters, to try and minimise the financial impact for some of you.
We appreciate that these are difficult times for all of us and some of you may be directly or indirectly affected by the virus or are cautious about attending court. Please follow the guidelines on our website if you are unsure what to do and contact the Provider Services team if you are unavailable.
To assist us to speed up our processes for opposed bail and reassignments for the next few weeks, we would appreciate it if you could email your respective legal aid office on a Monday to advise what days you are available for that immediate week. That will reduce the time we spend calling providers who are unavailable on specific days which will expedite speedy assignment.
Legal Aid approvals
As you may be aware, there is currently a project underway to improve our approval process, due to current circumstances, we have decided to place this project on hold until further notice. We will keep you informed of any developments as and when we are able to.
All current legal aid provider contracts and any approvals due to expire within this time will be extended until June 2021.
Due to our re-prioritisation of processes and resources, some of the current approvals processes will be affected. Those who have already submitted lead applications will be contacted directly to discuss the expected assessment timeframe. Providers who are yet to submit applications for lead approval are encouraged to delay submission until further notice.
Providers applying for supervised approval can continue to do so normally.
Those providers who required urgent approval to act in a specific case can still apply for a limited approval. Limited approvals are available in proceedings where:
1.    You are acting (or have acted) in a related proceeding, and/or;
2.    You have relevant specialist knowledge and skills, and/or;
3.    There is a shortage of existing providers in the region with the necessary skills and experience to act in the proceeding.
More detailed information about limited applications can be found on the Ministry website.
Legal Aid Audits
As you know the Ministry frequently conducts audits of its contracted service providers. Although audits are an important means of ensuring the quality of the Ministry’s contracted services, they have not been confirmed as critical.  Legal Aid Services recognises that its providers in the community are themselves responding to these unprecedented events we are in and that it would be inappropriate to continue with the current audit programme at this time.
In making this decision the Ministry is also aware of the most recent advice concerning domestic travel and physical distancing practices.
For those reasons, all provider audits will be paused until further notice. If we require any further information from you regarding audits that are already underway, we will be in touch.
Legal Aid Complaints
The Ministry is also placing a pause on all activity surrounding complaint investigations that are currently underway and no further action is required by those providers affected by this notice. 
If you have any questions regarding approvals, audits or complaints please direct them to legalaidprovider@justice.govt.nz.
We are currently working through the details of our continuity plan and will be communicating any further information to you through What’s new for Legal Aid Lawyers and through the Law Society as soon as we have more information to share.
I would like to thank you all for your cooperation during this time, your continued hard work and commitment to legal aid and to our customers is greatly appreciated.
Ngā mihi
Brett Dooley, Legal Services Commissioner
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