I read in Law Points (NZ Law Society) that Charles Chauvel asked Justice Minister Judith Collins for information on the number and value of invoices for Legal Aid payments that were awaiting payment at 30 March 2012. This is from the Law Points article:
She said invoices totalling the following for work undertaken in each of the courts or tribunals were approved as accurate and complete for payment on 30 March 2012:
“How much legal aid payment is owed to legal aid lawyers as at 30 March 2012 for work undertaken in…”
Court or tribunal Value Family Court $195,808.00 Waitangi Tribunal $47,682.00 District courts $318,743.00 High Court $23,104.00 Court of Appeal $0.00
Based on her response I can only assume those figures relate solely to lawyers fees and do not include disbursements, which include the fees of independent expert witnesses (Crown witnesses are paid from a separate fund). It would therefore seem that the answer to the question “How many invoices for legal aid payments were awaiting payment as at 30 March 2012” must only relate to the fees of lawyers.
As an expert witness and a service provider to the justice system (largely criminal but some civil) I can say that the amount outstanding to my company for work completed in Legal Aid cases to the end of March 2012 exceeded the figure stated by Mrs Collins for fees outstanding for the High Court alone. This is for work completed six months ago in some cases. All of the work completed was pre-approved for payment by Legal Aid yet payment is not quick and certainly extremely rarely paid within one working week (allowing for processing via the Legal Aid lawyer). Although we are dependent on lawyers paying our fees once they themselves have been paid, we believe many are quite quick at passing on our fees. We are continually advised by lawyers that invoices are still outstanding with Legal Aid many weeks and months after we have submitted them to the lawyer.
Overall, I find the figures reported by the Minister for Justice to be unrepresentative of the total amount of fees outstanding. Experts’ fees represent more than just disbursements; they are time and skill of individuals who are contributing to the administration of justice in a similar way to lawyers. In some cases, the contribution expert witnesses make to cases is considerable and the court could not function without them (either Crown or defence witnesses).
The significance and potential importance of the role of the expert witness in New Zealand is not taken into account in the same way as it is overseas; there are large reviews into the standards of all forensic science taking place in the USA and Europe yet barely anything is heard here at all.
Slow paying of invoices is bad business practice and would be subject to interest charges in the private sector.
It is also embarrassing for New Zealand when overseas experts provide world-class advice in a case but have to wait months to be paid.