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The reform of legal aid

Reference is made to the article entitled ‘Legal aid system now leaving the most vulnerable with no justice’ (January 16). It is to be noted that the official agency responsible for the provision of legal aid in Malta, Legal Aid Malta, was not consulted prior to the organisation of this seminar. An invite to deliver a presentation was extended to the senior legal counsel from the Department of Justice who is neither a legal aid lawyer nor involved in any way in the provision of legal aid.

In this respect, the invitee accepted the invitation to deliver the presentation with a view to open the doors to collaborate, but it would have been best had legal aid lawyers been invited as part of the panel of experts rather than to attend as part of the audience.

In view of the erroneous and misleading information that seems to have been provided during the seminar regarding legal aid provision, we would like to clarify the following.

Legal aid lawyers are not paid by the Attorney General. The establishment of Legal Aid Malta in 2014 as an independent agency meant that the government, on its own stead, took the initiative to remedy the situation that could have created a potential conflict of interest to the parties.

Legal Notices 414 of 2014 and 64 of 2016  have established Legal Aid Malta as an independent agency. Consequently, legal aid services became no longer answerable to the Attorney General and it has been constituted as an independent service with its own budget.

The establishment of Legal Aid Malta in 2014 meant the government took the initiative to remedy a situation that could have created a potential conflict of interest

Prior to the revision of the retainer fee that was carried out by this legislature with effect from October 2016, the previous financial package was last reviewed in 2007 to a minimal €2,300. Given the importance that this administration is giving to raising the level of service provision to legal aid clients, this remuneration package was increased by nearly threefold, and efforts are currently underway to further improve this package.

Thus the figures quoted by Ann Spiteri are archaic and do not reflect the current state of affairs.

It is also pertinent to point out that none of the legal aid lawyers are engaged full time on salary scale 10. There are currently 18 legal aid lawyers assisted by 24 legal procurators. Unfortunately, here again, Spiteri’s information was based on misleading facts and she only had to consult the ministry to obtain the latest information.

It is unfortunate that such wrong and misleading information about the agency and its functions, as reported in the press, has been provided during a public seminar during which there was little opportunity to correct the inaccuracies being stated.

The public, and more specifically, legal aid clients, have the right to correct information. A more proper consultation on the organisation of the seminar and the topics covered therein would have benefited mutual cooperation and would have ensured that the interests of the legal aid user, as the ultimate beneficiary, would have been safeguarded.

Legal Aid Malta and the Department of Justice augur that in future occasions they will be consulted on matters related to legal aid, to avoid sensationalism based on incorrect facts, and pave the way for the provision of a better service for the clients and improved working conditions for the lawyers offering their services in this sensitive area.

Simon Micallef Stafrace is acting head advocate for Legal Aid.

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