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Plan to deal with rocketing legal aid bills ... and 100,000 parking tickets

Measures will be taken to cut rocketing legal aid bills while extra court hearings may be held at weekends to clear a backlog of unpaid parking tickets, MP Michael Scott revealed.

The news came as he detailed how the Ministry of Justice will spend its $58.5 million budget allocation.

The Ministry got an eight percent funding increase overall, but Mr Scott, who was speaking on behalf of Minister of Justice Kim Wilson, said various cuts have to be made.

He told the House of Assembly there has been a 64 percent increase in the amount of legal aid funding, which is more than a $1 million increase. Mr Scott said this was necessary due to factors such as increased unemployment and an upsurge in serious and violent crime.

Mr Scott said costs have already been reduced by cutting the budget for Queen’s Counsels and disqualifying non Bermuda residents from receiving legal aid. However, he said, costs have risen 60 percent in the past three years and legal aid is expected to cost $5.5 million in the next budget year. The average cost of each legal aid case is $9,468 and further cost saving measures are being considered.

These include decreasing payments for private lawyers who take on legal aid work and “fixed brief fees” which means a set fee is paid per case rather than paying the lawyer by the hour. He also suggested recruiting defence lawyers to work specifically in the legal aid department.

However, this invoked the ire of Opposition MP and defence lawyer Mark Pettingill who is against the idea of publicly-appointed defenders within the legal aid office.

Mr Pettingill said private defence lawyers do an effective job on legal aid cases despite not having the same funding as the prosecutions department and often facing delays in payment.

He suggested that state-appointed defence lawyers could turn out to be “junior people that don’t have the experience, or non Bermudians who aren’t known.”

In other news relating to the Justice budget, Mr Scott praised the National Anti Money Laundering Committee for making progress in strengthening Bermuda’s stance on money laundering and terrorist financing. He said there have been seven convictions for money laundering since 2009 when the first such case came before the Island’s courts. Five more cases are pending before the courts.

He said there have been seven convictions overseas in money laundering cases which the Bermuda authorities have assisted with between 2009 and 2011. Five were in the US and two in the UK.

Meanwhile, over $2.6 million in cash and assets stemming from crime was seized over the course of 2009 to 2011.

Mr Scott praised the Justice Protection Act which was introduced to protect witnesses from intimidation. He said it has led to an increase in successful prosecutions for gang-related violent crime.

Both Opposition MP Trevor Moniz and Charles Swan, who was elected as a United Bermuda Party MP, also spoke warmly about progress in the arena of witness support and protection.

Mr Swan noted there have been a number of successful prosecutions recently as a result, but suggested: “Whistleblower legislation is perhaps something that would assist in this regard.”

Mr Scott praised Supreme Court judges and court staff as well as prosecutors and defence lawyers for the fact there is no backlog in cases in the higher court. Most are listed within three months. However, he noted that there is a backlog in the Magistrates’ Court where there are delays in excess of three months for hearings and it is often “standing room only” in Plea Court.

Additional court sessions may be scheduled to deal with the problem of unpaid parking tickets, however.

“Legislation regarding the enforcement of parking tickets will be considered,” announced Mr Scott. “There are more than 100,000 parking tickets leading to several thousand defendants being summonsed before the courts to answer to unpaid parking tickets. As a result, evening or Saturday court sessions may have to be added to the court docket to cope with the potential backlog.”

Mr Scott said $6.1 million has been collected in the past year in child support payments, which is a 4.6 percent decrease on the year before. He attributed the decrease to the recession and unemployment and also a number of people not paying. He indicated that tougher enforcement measures are under consideration.

Turning to the prison system, he said there were, on average 286 inmates in Westgate each day in 2010 compared to the year before. The average cost of incarcerating each inmate was $80,089 per year in 2010 compared to $79,977 the year before.

There were 542 new inmates in 2010, of which 163 were being incarcerated for the first time. The average recidivism rate was 39 percent.

Mr Moniz said the recidivism rate is a concern the Opposition wishes to see addressed.

Mr Scott also told the House that $70,000 is being spent to get a Bermudian fully qualified as a forensic psychologist to assist in the prisons in the next three years.

Turning to the Department of Public Prosecutions, he said it had experienced a shortage of staff at the same time as an increased workload due to gun and gang violence.

Despite this, he said there has been “considerable success in the prosecution of most of these serious and complex criminal cases” and that prosecutors have been working on such cases back to back.

He explained that one Senior Crown counsel resigned last year to return to the UK and one junior Crown counsel was recruited. The Department is currently in the process of recruiting three more Crown counsels.

He praised the Witness Care Unit, which has been allocated $122,000 in the budget, for helping 455 victims and witnesses in the last budget year and more than 1,400 of them since it was founded in 2008.

Mr Scott detailed a large number of programmes within the Ministry of National Drug Control. Mr Moniz said he would like to see “fewer agencies providing services in a more rational fashion” within the Ministry but the Minister denied there is any overlap in the services provided.

Mr Moniz also gave credit for “an imaginative position taken” in a cautioning policy implemented by the Department of Public Prosecutions in conjunction with the police for those caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for their own personal use.

“I would encourage the Director to really publicise this more,” he said.

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Published March 10, 2012 at 7:31 am (Updated March 10, 2012 at 7:30 am)

Plan to deal with rocketing legal aid bills ... and 100,000 parking tickets

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