A city in its own right, Porirua is, however, often considered to be an extension of Wellington. The profession is composed mainly of sole practitioners and small practices, most of whom are based in the side streets of the small CBD, centred around the popular North City Shopping Centre.
Tania Davis of Tania Davis Law has been a lawyer for 30 years. She moved from Hawke’s Bay to the Wellington region in 1997 and established her practice in Porirua in 2010. She says there’s enough work for all the current lawyers and any others who wish to work in the area.
“There’s a lot of work around, and it’s a really heavy workload, particularly if you are a softie and a bleeding heart like myself; it’s hard to say no. I think we need more lawyers because everyone is conflicted and there’s only a few firms in Porirua doing legal aid. The legal profession here is a small community.”
New Zealand Law Society figures back this up. From 2011-18, Porirua had the fourth biggest drop in the number of lawyers, 13.3%, or 60 lawyers down to 52. It has 1,079 people for every lawyer, compared to just 84 people per lawyer for Wellington.
Ms Davis says with the Family Court catchment area stretching from Tawa up to Waikanae on the Kāpiti Coast, and over to Pauatahanui, the small number of firms cover a large district.
Porirua has a diverse community with a large population of people from Māori and Pacific Island communities. Nestling close to low income suburbs such as those in East Porirua are wealthier suburbs like Whitby and Plimmerton.
“There’s domestic violence in all economic and racial groups, it does not have barriers. Well-off Pākehā don’t necessarily tend to go to the police or to lawyers to sort out those problems; lower socio-economic groups are more in-your-face so people think that’s what a large bit of our work is, and it is generally, but that is not to say those problems are not prevalent in the higher income groups,” says Ms Davis.
She says those higher income groups tend to get friends to help sort out any issues or just keep quiet. “There’s the same kind of issues but I think that they’re not as obvious, because they don’t want people to know.”
“Everyone has problems, but the lack of money exacerbates those problems; if you have money you can pay to go to a counsellor, you can pay for therapeutic intervention. So when there’s no money the work is harder, it is way more upsetting because you know what the solution could be but who the hell is going to pay for it?”
A provincial town next to the capital
And Ms Davis says there’s a community vibe to the city which is lacking in the big brother nearby.
“I find the community really friendly here compared to Wellington. I know the coffee shop woman, and the hairdresser next door, and I don’t think that would happen in central Wellington. Here, we’ll have lunch with the neighbouring businesses and wipe the chalk marks off each other’s car tyres. If I sit out the front door people come and chat to me.
“It’s more provincial, more rural in Porirua. It’s also a vibrant, diverse community. I couldn’t work in Wellington, I would feel smothered, overwhelmed.”
Andy Soper is a partner at commercial law specialists Maude and Miller and says a new motorway being built to provide a better link to Kāpiti, and the movement of agencies and firms into the city is making a massive difference.
“It has aspects of a small town but there has been an uptake in commercial law because there have been government departments and national companies moving into Porirua. It’s a place that has a lot of land, if you look behind you there’s land on the hill that is being developed.
“The place is growing, there’s another major subdivision happening on the old Porirua hospital site, and there is Transmission Gully which will make a big difference here, and indeed has increased the population just through the workforce involved on it,” he says.
“The accessibility of Porirua should be enhanced through the new road, and combine that with the fact that there is land here and the commercial rents are more attractive than those in Wellington, so there’s a lot of potential for growth.”
Furthermore, as house prices continue to rise in Wellington that makes Porirua a more enticing place to settle down.
“I have builder clients who are struggling to build houses fast enough and they usually struggle to get enough workers. There are various pressure points and, of course, that means supply is not increasing as fast as it should and prices go up.”
Mr Soper also says the increase in work has affected the profession.
“It’s not always easy to find experienced lawyers. There have been times when we have needed to grow and it has taken us time to get the people we needed. I suspect that is not an issue for Porirua alone, but this is a great place to work, and maybe that is a too well-kept secret.”
Cultural and economic diversity
Rohan Cochrane, a director at FamilyLaw Specialists Ltd, which has four lawyers (and will soon be looking for another), says the work they deal in is an interesting mix. He says that’s partly due to the various communities and the socio-economic diversity.
“There are areas which have some significant financial challenges and economic hardship and issues, through to areas which are often very geographically close by that are very affluent.
“The diversity throws up some advantages from the point of view of the availability of different kinds of support from people who are going through a tough time. Porirua is well resourced in terms of community agencies, who will work with people and some of them have a focus on Māori and Pacific communities, so there are some real strengths to that, in terms of looking for community assistance for people who might be in a very difficult space.”
His fellow director, Judith McMillan, says the way some communities approach mediation can be advantageous.
“If we’re working with children and there’s a family group conference sometimes there might be 40 people in attendance, whereas with other ethnicities, including Pākehā, sometimes there are only three or four. There is a lot of strength in the Māori and Pacific family connection.
“In those sort of situations, to someone who might be relatively new to this area of practice, it can look a little daunting but you can get some really good quality decisions out of all the people depending on how the dynamic of the meeting goes, so that certainly presents more opportunities than difficulties.”
Sole practitioner Christina Leech has been working in Porirua for 25 years, and says there is a big advantage to living in Wellington while working out of town.
“It’s a lovely place to work, it’s very diverse with a very broad spectrum of society and a broad range of cultures, and that’s changing too. There’s a lot more Indian and other Asian people now, the population is growing.”
She says there is a great level of collegiality in the city.
“The judges who work out here find we are a very collegial Bar and they enjoy that a lot. Lawyers work together and tend to help each other out. There’s quite a few sole practitioners out here who can’t rely on the resources of the big firms.”
Everything is here
Rohan Cochrane says, although he regards himself as a Wellingtonian, he loves Porirua and what it has to offer.
“I started working out here in 1999 and we shifted out here a few years later to Titahi Bay after Judith persuaded me to move after we visited her home.
“There’s mountain bike trails up on Colonial Knob, there’s walking tracks, there’s beaches, it’s a fantastic area. Professionally, practising in a court which is probably a bit smaller than the Wellington court, there’s an element of the small town about it, where you get to know the lawyers quite well, you get to know a lot of people in the community, you get to know families quite well, which can have its advantages and disadvantages.”
But Judith McMillan does say that having Wellington a short drive or train ride away is extremely helpful.
“There are a number of seminars and conferences held there, and there’s resources available to us, such as the High Court library. Porirua, in some ways, is very much like a small town but Wellington is always there and there’s the resources it provides. It’s the best of both of worlds.”
As an aside Judith tells the tale of one divorce case in which a home and cars were involved in the separation of property. After some negotiation she says she was taken aback by an email from the lawyer representing the other client, saying that his client “was absolutely adamant that he was to get the purple broom, not the grey broom”.
She says the other client “got the broom, but he didn’t get a lot of other things he wanted.”
Facts and figures on Porirua
Figures from the 2013 Census show that 51,717 people live in Porirua, an increase of 3,171 people since the 2006 Census.
That’s broken down as: European 63.9%, Pacific peoples 26.2%, Māori 20.8% and Asian 6.4% (with some people classifying themselves as more than one ethnicity).
The median income is $31,400 compared to the national median of $28,500.
The unemployment rate is 9.3% compared to 7.1% nationally.
The average household size in Porirua is 3.0 people, compared with an average of 2.7 people for all of New Zealand.