New Zealand Law Society - Community law delivers millions in free legal advice

Community law delivers millions in free legal advice

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A new report says social investment by community law centres is providing $50 million worth of free legal services each year for an annual investment of just $11 million.

The study was done by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.

Community Law Centres o Aotearoa Co-Chair Cameron Madgwick says it shows effective social investment targeting vulnerable people, in action.

The value of investing in Community Law Centres: An economic investigation finds that in 2015/16 Community Law Centres provided almost 107,000 hours of advice, assistance or representation to 48,088 clients on more than 53,000 legal issues.

The centres also provided over 16,000 hours of legal service information and law-related education services to 32,335 participants.

The report estimates the gross benefit provided by community law centres by comparing the estimated costs of providing CLC case advice with that of the next most expensive public provider - the Public Defence Service - as a measure of the value for money achieved by CLCs. It also estimates the value of the volunteer effort provided by CLCs and the additional funding they attract from other sources.

"We estimate the gross benefit of CLC case work at approximately $30 to $50 million," it says.

This estimate does not include the benefit of more than 16,000 hours of information and education services provided by community law centres to more than 32,000 participants, nor the value of the social harms avoided through early intervention from Community Law.

During the year to 30 June 2016 community law centres received 13,516 hours of volunteer legal advice of which 11,737 hours were used for case work and the remaining 1,779 hours were used for information and education services. The study values the benefit of this at $810,000.

"In addition we estimate that volunteers contribute a further 12,000 hours of governance per year which we have valued at $1.2 million per year."

Community law centres received funding of just under $11 million from the Ministry of Justice for the year to 30 June 2016. The report says for most centres the ministry funding represents about 80% to 90% of their total funding. The remainder comes from a variety of sources including donations, sponsorship, interest and dividends and income from services.

Cameron Madgwick says Community Law is not only giving New Zealand’s most powerless access to free legal advice, but by addressing and stopping legal problems from escalating, it is ultimately reducing the number of people relying on social services and the associated costs for taxpayers.

He says the clients they represent come mainly from the bottom two socio-economic deciles or around 800,000 people.

“But there are many thousands who cannot afford a lawyer or don’t have access to legal aid, who Community Law could assist with the resources to do so. The flow on benefits could be significant for not only our communities but for the wider economy,” he says.

“There is no doubt about the financial and societal value Community Law is delivering and the potential for us to be doing so much more,” he says.