The Crown Law Office is working to be able to better support government decision-makers throughout the decision-making process, Parliament's Justice Committee says.
In a report on its 2018/19 Annual review of the Crown Law Office, the committee says Crown Law wants its staff as well as lawyers in the wider Government Legal Network to be involved in projects and decisions at an earlier stage. It would also like to see lawyers contribute more flexibly through discussion and peer review.
"We were told that Crown Law wants to change perceptions of lawyers as 'people who say no', and instead promote lawyers as problem solvers who contribute positively to government work. Some of this work will be done by Crown Law staff who directly advise agencies, and some will be done through Crown Law’s work in supporting the in-house legal teams in each agency."
The committee says Crown Law noted that its cost recovery model might also discourage agencies from consulting its staff at an early stage
"Cost recovery is important, but we heard that it can sometimes be a barrier to effective consultation. Sometimes agencies may wish to minimise costs by seeking advice from Crown Law at the last minute, or only when absolutely necessary. Crown Law told us that it is working on alternatives or changes to the model to reduce any barriers to early engagement. It expects the review of its cost recovery process to be completed within the 2019/20 financial year."
The committee says it noted that among Crown Law's permanent staff, Māori are significantly underrepresented, "as are Asian and Pacific New Zealanders, compared to the general population".
It says Crown Law is working particularly on improving the number of Māori lawyers who choose to work for the Crown.
"It has created support networks for Māori Crown solicitors, and shared learning groups for Māori lawyers across the GLN. We also heard that Crown Law itself is providing tikanga and te reo classes to all of its staff."
Competition with private sector for staff
The committee says it asked Crown Law about the extent to which it has to compete with the private sector on the work that it gets from government agencies.
"We heard that the Cabinet requires agencies, when they do not have internal expertise, to seek legal advice from Crown Law on some core matters, including constitutional issues, prosecutions, and Treaty of Waitangi matters, among others. On other, less specialised matters, private sector expertise can be accessed, through government-wide procurement agreements.
"As a result, Crown Law tends not to compete, partly because it must be consulted on certain issues. Even where agencies are not directed to engage with Crown Law, its expertise and the fact that its fees are only intended to recover costs rather than make a profit, mean that it tends to be the most attractive source of legal advice on the matters it deals with."
The committee says staff with Crown Law experience must be in high demand in the private sector, and it heard that there is some competition, "and staff of course sometimes move to the private sector or other agencies."
"However, Crown Law has found it helpful to have lawyers across government and the legal system with the specialised knowledge they learn at Crown Law. It tries to manage the dissemination of this experience as much as possible, through a system of secondments."