Dunedin's community of independent criminal lawyers is
diminishing because of a lack of work.
The Government established a Public Defence Service (PDS)
office in Dunedin almost two years ago and allocated 50% of
the court's legal aid cases to its four criminal lawyers.
It left independent counsel significantly less work,
particularly young lawyers not able to take trials.
Criminal lawyer Anne Stevens said it was no longer viable for
young lawyers to specialise in criminal law.
She and other long-serving members of Dunedin's independent
criminal Bar could rely on trials to keep them busy, but
those restricted to category 1 and 2 cases - with maximum
penalties of up to 10 years' imprisonment - did not have
enough work to justify their involvement, she said.
It meant when Dunedin's senior criminal lawyers started to
retire, in as little as five years, there would be no-one to
''It will be the end of our independent criminal Bar. It's
vital to have independent lawyers, because there are some
cases involving multiple people who can't all be represented
by the PDS,'' Mrs Stevens said.
An independent Bar was also necessary to do work not assigned
to the PDS, including parole board work and self-funded
criminal cases, she said.
''They [PDS lawyers] only act for people eligible for legal
aid. They could also not do appellate work where the ground
of appeal was that they, as counsel, made a mistake,'' Mrs
New Zealand Law Society Otago branch president Gerard De
Courcy said in addition to independent lawyers losing half of
all legal aid cases, in general the number of criminal legal
aid grants had reduced.
''It's particularly difficult for young lawyers to enter this
area,'' he said.
It could lead to the Government taking all criminal legal aid
cases, Mr De Courcy said.
''That would mean the Government would arrest, defend and
judge people who can't afford a lawyer privately. Criminal
law is not an area without controversy and society benefits
from a robust and independent legal profession,'' he said.
Justice Minister Judith Collins said the Government valued a
strong private Bar working alongside the PDS, which was
introduced to address issues of quality, timeliness and
performance in criminal cases.
She said the PDS provided a good training ground for criminal
barristers, who often became private lawyers, and, although
it was not surprising there was a reduction in the number of
private legal aid providers in Dunedin, some would be
employed by the PDS.
New Zealand's falling crime rate also affected lawyers'
caseloads, she said.
''It's important to note we currently have a profession
dealing with change. The numbers prosecuted in court are
falling and are at their lowest level in a decade.
''Policing excellence changes and the use of pre-charge
warnings has also played a part in reducing the number of
In the 12 months to September 30, the PDS took 47% of
category 1 cases, 40% of category 2 cases, 28% of category 3
cases and 38% of category 4 cases in Dunedin, Ms Collins
''That means 1053 cases went to the private Bar and 920 cases
to the PDS.''
The Law Society last week published statistics showing gross
payments for legal services in Dunedin had fallen about 27%,
from $4.39 million to $3.17 million in the past year.
There were about 300 lawyers in the city.
The Dunedin PDS office opened in November 2011, after the
Government announced it would increase the allocation of
criminal legal aid cases to PDS lawyers from 33% to 50%.
It was anticipated the Dunedin PDS office would eventually
employ about 10 lawyers as well as administrative staff.
The PDS had grown into New Zealand's largest criminal law
practice, with more than 170 employees.