New Zealand Law Society - Building a ‘Fit-for-the-Future’ New Zealand Law Society

Building a ‘Fit-for-the-Future’ New Zealand Law Society

The New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa tackled major legacy issues and emerged from 2021 stronger and better able to meet the dynamic needs of the legal profession now and in the future.

The 2021 Annual Report, released today, depicts a ‘fit-for-the-future’ Law Society and highlights major achievements marked in 2021, as well as the ongoing work to ensure the profession maintains high public confidence and trust.

Law Society President Tiana Epati said the Law Society was proud of its accomplishments in 2021 despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the backlog it was creating in the legal system.

“We have laid the foundations for change and are going into 2022 determined to keep up that momentum,” she said.

2021 Highlights

Independent Review

“In 2021, we commenced some highly significant projects.  These will help define and set the tone for the law profession and the way it serves the public of Aotearoa New Zealand for decades to come,” she said.

The Law Society initiated an Independent Review of itself – its structure, its legislation, its processes, even the effectiveness of its dual regulatory and membership make-up.

“We know there are potential deficiencies in our Act, even some omissions. Some of these were revealed by Dame Silvia Cartwright’s report on behaviour in the legal profession, in 2018,” Ms Epati said. 

“The Independent Review was commissioned to look at our entire operations and activities, to ensure what we do matches the needs of a 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand, including meeting our bi-cultural foundations.

“We’ve recently announced the Independent Review Panel that will undertake this crucial piece of work and we expect a report from them by the end of 2022,” Ms Epati said.

New Rule Changes

The Law Society also implemented changes to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act – Lawyers Conduct and Client Care Rules.

These are the rules on behaviour in the profession, that were targeted at addressing problems highlighted by the 2018 Legal Workplace and Environment Survey (the “Cartwright report”).  They required wide consultation and ultimately legislative changes, and changes to the Law Society’s Constitution.

“They are the most significant regulatory step available to the Law Society, to tackle unacceptable behaviour in legal workplaces,” Ms Epati said.

The rule changes, effective from 1 July 2021, made clear new expectations of law practices including clearer definitions of bullying, discrimination, racial or sexual harassment and other conduct.

The Law Society has seen an increase in the number of complaints related to bullying, harassment, and discrimination, reflected in the Annual Report.

“As the guardian of the legal profession, we believe this increase is indicative of the real cultural shift underway in legal workplaces. We anticipate further increases in the number of complaints in these areas due to the changes to the Rules.

From 1 July 2021 the Law Society also implemented a screening process to deal with confidential reports and notifications in these areas. Investigations in this area are complex, often involving multiple parties, vulnerable people and legal issues which can mean they take longer to resolve.

“We are committed to ensuring our complaints system suits all types of complaints,” Ms Epati said.

It is important to note however, that across all complaints, most are not upheld and require no further action. In the reporting year, nearly 80% of complaints were not upheld.

Access to Justice – A Stocktake of Initiatives

The Law Society also published a stocktake report on New Zealanders’ access to justice.  This was a report on what ‘access’ New Zealanders have and what barriers there are to it, including the significant strain on New Zealand's legal aid system.

“It was the first step in defining where the Law Society is uniquely placed to act in order to deliver greater access to justice for consumers,” Ms Epati said.

Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa and the Pacific Lawyers Association

Two activities of the Law Society in 2021 were especially meaningful, and much needed.  The Law Society embraced Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Lawyers Association) and the Pacific Lawyers Association, who took seats on the New Zealand Law Society Council. This was an initiative 32 years in the making and one that required a change to the Constitution. 

“It was incredibly important to invite these expert and influential groups to become involved,” Ms Epati said.

“We also supported the wearing of taonga in court, instead of neckties, allowed for the first time by the Chief Justice. These transformations are helping shape justice in a country that we can recognise as unique and our own.”

Financial Results

For the first time, the Law Society have included in the Annual Report the full financial statements. This is part of the ongoing commitment to transparency. 

Law Society Chief Executive Joanna Simon said historically there had been a conservative approach resulting in under investment in systems to meet ‘best practice’ in both regulatory and representative areas.

“In 2021, we began to change that and modernise our systems. It’s also likely that substantial ongoing investment in this area will be needed in future, resulting in lower (but still very substantial) reserves,” she said.

The financial position of the Law Society remains sound. The two parts of the Law Society, which must report separately, showed:

  • Regulatory operating result was a surplus of $823,000 for the year (against a budgeted deficit of $678k);
  • Representative operating result was a deficit of $791,000 for the year (against a budgeted deficit of $1.6 million). The more favourable result related to good performance by Law Society training provider NZLS CLE Limited.

“In 2022/23, as part of our budget planning process, we will tap into our reserves to continue the modernisation and investment into our systems,’’ Ms Simon said.