The rise in people who represent themselves in court proceedings is one of several indicators that a wide-ranging examination of the barriers to an accessible justice system is needed, New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore says.
Commenting on reports that rising court costs and other factors are causing more people to represent themselves in court, Mr Moore says that in a rapidly changing society the relevance of long-standing institutions such as our courts and legal system will be tested more and more.
"The Law Society is strongly advocating the need for all sections of our community – including Parliament, government agencies, everyone with a legal issue, lawyers, and the judiciary – to consider and develop new solutions and initiatives which recognise the way our justice system must change to accommodate societal changes.
"There are many issues around access to justice. At the core is what we need to change to make the processes and the institutions involved workable, relevant and accessible for everyone," Mr Moore says.
"While everyone is able to represent themselves in court if they choose, our system is built on the premise that people in court will be represented by a lawyer. The rise in people representing themselves and the problems they encounter in doing so is a good example of how barriers can arise. There are many reasons why people represent themselves, but research has shown that financial barriers are a common reason.
"Self-represented litigants can have a noticeable impact on how a particular court proceeding develops. While lawyers have a duty to their clients, they are firstly officers of the court and must ensure that justice is done for all. Similarly, judges must ensure that all aspects of the case are brought out and considered. This means they may have to actively assist the self-represented person.
"Unfamiliarity with the legal process means that court staff often need to spend more time assisting self-represented litigants with filing documents, discovery and other matters. The Law Society will always support the right of anyone to represent themselves. What is at the heart of the matter is the need to make changes to the system which recognise the old model no longer exists."
Mr Moore says the discussion on justice accessibility among lawyers and the judiciary has intensified over the last year.
"There has been a growing debate on alternatives, changes and possibilities. These include a re-examination of the philosophy behind legal aid, the development of limited retainer services, online advice services, new ways of delivering legal advice, alternative methods of dispute resolution, changes to the way lawyers charge, the unbundling of legal services, and online dispute resolution. I've named just some of the options which have been proposed and discussed in the Law Society's own publications over the last six months.
"What is very clear to me is that this discussion must intensify and we must start developing and trialling some initiatives. The price of inaction will be a continued increase in the number of people who lose the fundamental right to a justice system which is open to all regardless of their income."