New Zealand Law Society - Profession needs to be part of access to justice debate

Profession needs to be part of access to justice debate

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New Zealand's lawyers should care about the fact that there are major issues with people being able to understand, enter and use the justice system within which they play an integral part, New Zealand Law Society President-Elect Kathryn Beck says.

Writing the editorial in the latest issue of the Law Society's LawTalk magazine, Ms Beck says the issue of access to justice is around how easy - or not - it is for people to understand and access the justice system and then how responsive that system is to resolving disputes or grievances.

"We are all well aware of the economic barriers to accessing justice in both the criminal and family jurisdictions with the reduction in legal aid. And there are significant social and economic issues with accessing justice for Māori, Pacific Island, Asian and other ethnic groups in New Zealand, as well as for those who are vulnerable due to health, disability or other reasons," she says.

"Addressing issues with access to justice is critical not only from a social responsibility perspective but also, as lawyers, from a professional perspective.

"We need to have a look at our justice system - and when I say we, I don't mean just the law profession, I mean Parliament and other stakeholders. If we don't, we will fail those who use the system.

"We need to review and reflect on our current system and how it can be improved. How can we bring it up to date, make the most of the tools that we have and develop a response to the issues we are finding? This includes issues of cost, timeliness, and complexity."

Ms Beck says as professionals lawyers are privileged and have been granted standing within the system.

"We need to continue to be worthy of that privilege. Not only should we constructively participate in any process that reviews access to justice, but we are perfectly placed to develop ideas of our own and we should do so."

She says addressing the issues around access to justice in New Zealand is likely to require some fundamental changes to how the system - or at least parts of it - operate.

"It seems to me that the profession needs to engage in investigating what these changes should be, if not take the lead in that process."