Law Society navigates towards its future
The last year has been one of significant challenges and navigating change for the New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa.
Highlights from the Law Society’s annual report, which was tabled in Parliament today, include the release of and response to the once in a generation Independent Review of the regulation of lawyers, an updated legal workplace environment survey and providing support to lawyers in flood-hit regions after Cyclone Gabrielle.
Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch said she was proud of the work the Law Society had done for its more than 16,000 lawyers across the country who are represented through 13 branches and three sections.
In the last year:
We continue to focus on modernising the Law Society’s regulatory functions and elevating performance. In the past year, Professional Standards implemented a new structure and employed additional staff to implement a new prioritisation and early resolution service.
Ms Rusbatch says the Lawyers Complaints Service now attempts to de-escalate complaints when they are received, resulting in a simplified and expedited process. “Our staff now have mediation training which means they can often achieve resolutions before complaints are referred to standards committees,” she says.
The changes have meant that not only are fewer complaints referred to standards committees but also that the committees can focus on the complaints that require the most attention. “We operate under highly prescriptive legislation, but the changes that we’ve made to facilitate early resolution of complaints have had a positive impact in reducing the number of complaints referred to our standard track process – a process that is resource-intensive and time-consuming for all parties,” she said.
Ms Rusbatch says that over the past year, the complaints team has focussed on closing complaints that have been open for more than a year.
The Law Society’s commitment to improving the culture of the profession continues. During the year, the second workplace environment survey, following the one that was first conducted in 2018, found clear evidence that workplace stress for lawyers, and particularly criminal and family court lawyers, is an area of real concern.
“We continue to advocate for the wellbeing of our profession,” Ms Rusbatch said. “And while there has been a reduction in the level of sexual harassment, we acknowledge that there is still more to be done in this as well as a number of other areas, including bullying and employment discrimination.”
Ms Rusbatch said the Independent Review into the regulation of legal services commissioned by the Law Society was the most significant piece of work for the organisation in the last 12 months. “We started this work four years ago in response to criticism of the way our regulatory functions were conducted,” she said. “The report is significant for the legal profession in Aotearoa.”
The Law Society submitted its formal response, which included accepting in principle separating the organisation’s regulatory and representative functions, to the then Minister of Justice at the end of August.
As legislative change is required to implement such a change, it is now up to the new Government to determine if legislative reform is warranted and what form it might take.
Ms Rusbatch said other highlights for the year included significant process on the financial sustainability of the representative function of the organisation including preparing to introduce a subscription fee from 1 July 2024.
The Law Society also continued work to modernise its technology and to improve processes to deal with complaints.