Legal Aid Queensland has recently increased fees – with further increases anticipated – but Legal Aid Queensland Board Chair the Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC encourages more preferred suppliers to share the load.
Fees paid to private practitioners who do legal aid work have again been a key issue, both in Australia and internationally, as lawyers strive to maintain viable practices while delivering access to justice to Queensland’s most disadvantaged people.
Inflation is at its highest point for 30 years and the cost of living, including the cost of running a law practice, is also rising. Legal Aid Queensland understands that, despite recent welcome fee increases, low legal aid fees remain a barrier to many practitioners taking on our important work.
Lawyers in private practice deliver about 80% of legal representation services for LAQ clients. Last year LAQ and its partners, including many private practitioners, represented more than 121,000 Queenslanders as duty lawyers in a range of courts and LAQ approved aid for a further 35,389 criminal, family and civil law matters.
LAQ would simply not be able to meet the legal needs of all these clients without the support and dedication of the valued barristers and solicitors in private practice who undertake our work at reduced rates.
There are 311 firms currently accepting legally-aided matters on our behalf – 240 are in south-east Queensland, including the Gold and Sunshine Coast communities and Toowoomba, and 71 are in regional and rural areas to the north and west of the state.
On behalf of all Queenslanders, I sincerely thank each of them for their role in ensuring that so many financially and socially disadvantaged people, right across this large and decentralised state, have access to justice.
There are diverse reasons why law firms and barristers undertake legally aided work. Being an LAQ preferred supplier is a recognition of competence in the particular field of practice, predominantly criminal, family, domestic violence and child protection law.
Although LAQ fees are necessarily modest, we pride ourselves on paying accounts promptly. Some firms and practitioners appreciate being able to supplement their more lucrative but often less dependable private work with regular LAQ fees.
LAQ cases are often high profile and cover a wide range of the human experience. They provide practitioners with an opportunity to develop their skills and profile, and to train and keep engaged younger lawyers, many of whom particularly enjoy the challenges and rewards of our work. Importantly, LAQ supports our preferred supplier lawyers with both excellent continuing professional development opportunities and our first-class library resources, including useful databases unavailable elsewhere.
For many, representing legally-aided clients is an opportunity to give back to the community and to show a professional commitment to increasing access to justice. That is why some solicitor firms and experienced barristers and silks – even those whose practices do not rely on LAQ work – accept legally-aided cases. In doing so, they demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law and the administration of justice and help maintain public confidence in the legal profession and the justice system.
But goodwill, professionalism and community spirit alone cannot meet the growing demands on Queensland’s busy legal aid system. Due to LAQ’s tight budgetary constraints, legal aid fees are necessarily constrained.
Lawyers deserve to be adequately remunerated for their demanding professional work, which includes assisting some of the most vulnerable in our community – domestic violence victim-survivors, people with mental health conditions and those who have experienced trauma. LAQ and the lawyers who accept work on our behalf ensure that even the unpopular and demonised have access to competent legal representation, a cornerstone of our justice system.
For some time now, LAQ has been conscientiously working with Queensland Law Society, the Bar Association of Queensland and the Queensland Government to find ways to further increase fees paid to private legal practitioners and allied professionals who do legal aid work.
I was pleased that in the June 2022-23 Queensland Budget, the Government funded LAQ to increase our fees and disbursement payments to solicitors and barristers in most Queensland matters. Professional fees for psychiatrists who provide reports and give evidence were also increased to belatedly come into line with fees paid by some other government agencies. The full details of these increases are available online in the LAQ Grants Handbook – Scale of Fees.
LAQ is all too aware that, for over a decade, our fees have failed to keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living. The professionals who accept our work cannot be expected to do so at a loss. We remain absolutely committed to paying adequate and appropriate professional fees, but we can only achieve this if we are funded to do so.
LAQ is currently investigating further structural adjustments to our professional fee scales in Queensland matters, as well as models for year-on-year indexation. We are hopeful that positive developments will soon provide greater certainty and relief from the effects of the present high inflation for our preferred suppliers.
I again congratulate and thank the many members of Queensland’s legal profession who generously undertake work on behalf of LAQ’s clients.
I also encourage others whose fields of practice include criminal, family, domestic violence, or child protection law to consider becoming an LAQ preferred supplier. It is a way to deliver a much-needed community service, gain valuable experience, and do interesting, meaningful work. Hopefully, the recent and anticipated fee increases will also make this financially viable.
Together we can ensure that Queensland’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people have access to the rule of law and competent legal representation, help maintain public confidence in the legal profession, and make a vital contribution to the administration of justice.
The Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC is Chair of the Legal Aid Queensland Board and a former President of the Queensland Court of Appeal.