The New Zealand Law Society welcomes any solution, even temporary, that will offer relief to a shortage in family legal aid lawyers in Wairarapa.
But it stresses asking lawyers in other areas to assist is a short term fix which doesn’t address the fundamental problems causing the shortage of lawyers.
The Ministry of Justice says it has been in contact with family legal aid lawyers based in Palmerston North and Upper Hutt and several have indicated they will take on cases in Wairarapa if required.
It says there are currently just seven family legal aid lawyers working in Wairarapa, down from nine after two recently left the region. In the past it has been as high as 11.
The ministry’s manager of legal aid services, Tracey Baguley, says it's important that people receive legal representation when they need it.
“The number of lawyers taking on legal aid work goes up and down, and from time-to-time in smaller communities, such as Wairarapa, we may see a need to bring in outside lawyers,” she says.
New Zealand Law Society Family Law Section chair Michelle Duggan says it’s great if it means that unmet legal needs are being taken care of and people are getting representation; however it is not a long term solution.
“Not by a long shot; yet that is what’s needed. There is a shortage of legal aid lawyers but the ministry just won’t properly examine as to why this is. What will happen in six months’ time and will these lawyers from outside the region still be available?” she says.
Ms Duggan says there are a range of reasons why it is difficult to keep family legal aid lawyers in any provincial area.
“It’s very hard work. It’s often urgent work and you’re essentially being asked to drop whatever other legal work you’re doing and attend to the urgent work. It also doesn’t pay well for lawyers working for firms which is why most lawyers that do legal aid work are sole practitioners; because we’re the only ones with the overheads that make it manageable,” she says.
However, Michelle Duggan says sole practitioners then have the problem of not being in a position to employ a junior lawyer to train.
“These are some of the substantive issues the ministry needs to address and the Law Society has not been silent on this issue. We have brought up these problems on numerous occasions,” she says.
Ms Duggan says the shortfall of family legal aid lawyers is not just a Wairarapa problem as it has been evident in places such as Hawke's Bay, Blenheim and Westport too. She says the Law Society has brought the shortage of legal aid family lawyers to the attention of the ministry a number of times in the past.