Claim that legal aid is inconsistent

A SENIOR Launceston lawyer has criticised "inconsistencies" with grants of aid by the Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania, which has defended its decision-making process.

Evan Hughes, of Rae and Partners, cited a recent example of a group of co-accused who had been charged with the same offence arising out of the same matter.

The Examiner saw the hearing in the Launceston Magistrates Court; one co-accused received legal aid, while another's application was refused and that person represented themselves, after the magistrate refused an adjournment to give them time to reapply for aid.

Mr Hughes said his client, who was denied aid, had been granted aid twice before in the same matter, because the case was deemed serious enough.

The test for aid is whether an accused, if found guilty, would be likely to face a term of imprisonment.

Legal aid director Dr Graham Hill said co-accused may be treated differently for a number of reasons; for example, different prior convictions or different roles in the alleged offence.

Dr Hill said applicants who missed out sometimes interpreted the decision as inconsistent, when there were valid reasons for the grants officer's decision.

Mr Hughes said he had at least 20 clients who were waiting 30 days to reapply for aid after their applications were refused because of a lack of funding.

He said the situation was as bad as he had seen it, since the daily funding cap for crime - aimed at reining in legal aid's budget - was introduced last year, but he noted that the overall funding of the scheme was also a major factor.

Law Society of Tasmania president Anthony Mihal said while a decision to refuse aid seemed arbitrary or unfair, he could not see another way for legal aid to stay within its "appallingly inadequate" budget.

In addition, Mr Hughes said lawyers were facing increasing pressure to either conduct matters pro bono or to seek adjournments, on the basis that funding may or may not be granted later in time, resulting in court delays.

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