Head of N.L. Legal Aid applauds plan to remove private counsel option

Head of N.L. Legal Aid applauds plan to remove private counsel option

The director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission says public lawyers can handle the serious cases currently going to private counsel.

The provincial government is moving to disallow Legal Aid clients the option of being defended by private lawyers on serious charges such as murder and manslaughter. An amendment to provincial legislation had its third reading in the House of Assembly on Tuesday.

"These changes are ones that I and my team here at Legal Aid have been pushing for, for five years or more," Nick Summers, director of the provincial Legal Aid Commission, told CBC.

"We didn't like it when it was brought in in 2008, we haven't liked it since. It's inefficient, it's costly and, perhaps most importantly, it perpetuates the erroneous view that Legal Aid lawyers aren't as good as private lawyers."

The change 10 years ago gave the impression that people charged with serious crimes needed an option other than Legal Aid.

"People perceive that as meaning that Legal Aid isn't up to that, which is completely wrong. We have many lawyers here that are more than competent to handle a murder file or any other serious criminal matter," he said.

New special defence unit planned

Summers acknowledged the move will create more work for the Legal Aid team.

"But we feel that taking some of the money — we don't even need all of the money — that we're currently paying out to the private lawyers, we take a chunk of that money, we can use it to create a, we don't have a name for it yet, but a special defence unit, which is going to handle murders and other serious criminal matters."

Summers said the unit would consist of up to three lawyers at a time. For murder files, which require two defence lawyers, one would come from the special defence unit and partner with a Legal Aid lawyer from the regional office where the case is being heard.

"We've been planning this for some time, and we feel we can handle the workload, we can do it cheaper and more effectively than the private bar," said Summers.