Private practitioners on Legal Aid grants: rorting or righteous?


This week, the Daily Telegraph reported the top 20 NSW law firms earning ‘millions’ from Legal Aid on grants.

Although it doesn’t go quite so far, the tone of the article is at least invites the consideration of the issue of impropriety by such firms and whether they are ‘rorting’ the system – why else would the amount particular firms respectively earn from Legal Aid be a topic of interest?

That said, the facts are appropriately laid out in the article.

The largest earner was Armidale firm Hadden Kemp Solicitors, which earned $833,760 for 481 cases, equivalent to $1,733 per case.

Such a figure is certainly towards the low end for total costs in a private criminal matter. For a solicitor charging $300 per hour, it comprises just under 6 hours’ work. For a court appearance hourly rate of $500, it allows 2-3 hours in court depending on the amount of preparation. Clearly, at a private rate, $1,733 would accommodate a very simple case only.

The firm also claimed $118,470 for 549 duty appearances at an average of $215 each – clearly below most private hourly rates.

This puts into context the work Hadden Kemp did in 2015 – minus $200,000-300,000 for barristers to represent clients in serious matters, and overheads such as wages, the three partners at the firm travel on average 150,000km a year and spend a collective 300 nights away from home appearing all over NSW.

The trouble for Legal Aid is that it has a limited budget, limited offices and limited solicitors. Last year. It relies on country firms to appear in cases when it cannot. Legal Aid in the city is also often overrun by cases, and often due to a conflict of interest, when Legal Aid is representing two co-defendants for example, it has no option to give work to private solicitors on a grant.

Taking Legal Aid cases is not an easy way to make money for private practitioners. The most well paid are those whose clients are criminals with deep pockets. Most private practitioners who take Legal Aid grants do so out of a desire to help those in society who are disadvantaged, and who are most of the time also the most likely to need assistance from a criminal defence lawyer.

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Private practitioners on Legal Aid grants: rorting or righteous?