New Zealand Law Society - Focus on The Far North: Every day is different for the legal community in a diverse district

Focus on The Far North: Every day is different for the legal community in a diverse district

Focus on The Far North: Every day is different for the legal community in a diverse district
Cape Reinga lighthouse

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The Far North is a vast rural area with a collection of towns of no more than a few thousand population each.

But it’s on the rise as people move out of Auckland and elsewhere for a better lifestyle, but those large new homes and baches hide an immense poverty and lack of opportunities.

Nearly half the population in an area stretching from south of Kawakawa to Cape Reinga has an annual income of $20,000 or less, about 10% under the national average. Access to the internet and car ownership are also lower than the national rates. More than 40% of people identify as Māori.

Taipa-based La-Verne King is well aware of this and works on the frontline, mainly in family law.

“In the course of my work I see a lot of poverty, family violence, and the effects drugs have on families, so there definitely is a lot of challenges up here.

“You have to remember that Northland was the first place in New Zealand to be colonised. Māori have lost a lot over many, many generations. Iwi are now reclaiming that right. There have been settlements in the Far North which will hopefully result in benefits to the beneficiaries, to the people of those iwi.

“There are also many people, whānau and community groups that are committed to doing their best and in giving back to their local community. #ILoveKaitaia is an example of that.”

La-Verne King
La-Verne King

Ms King has been a lawyer for 29 years and 18 of those were working out of South Auckland. She and her family moved back to the Far North for family reasons.

She works under the Doubtless Bay Law Ltd banner partly in order to keep her name out of sight. “Practising in a small community I didn’t really want to practise under my own name; Doubtless Bay Law is a bit more anonymous. I’m not totally anonymous but I want to have a life out of work and my firm’s name not only reflects the area that I am based in but also where I am from.”

Ms King, who has strong tribal links to the many iwi of the Far North but particularly to Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, works mainly in family law but due to community needs now operates in the conveyancing, wills, and estate work areas, as well as Māori land law.

She is also a mental health district inspector. “I help cover the in-patient unit, Tumanako, based at the Whangarei Hospital and issues that arise in the mid to Far North. I also receive complaints from people who have been subject to the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act. I’m definitely on the frontline, I’ve always practised at the grassroots level, that’s what I’ve chosen to do and will continue to do.

“There are a lot of challenges, but I think, in many ways, I am quite privileged, I meet some really interesting people, from varied parts of the community, and yes the work can be very challenging but I enjoy the work that I do and hopefully I make a good contribution.”

Dealing with division

Richard Ayton
Richard Ayton

Kerikeri lawyer Richard Ayton says lawyers need to be able to deal with the massive disparities. It’s an area that seems to have a geographical north/south split and more tellingly an east/west socio-economic divide.

“The extreme view of the Far North is of Kaitaia and that area and then this area is often referred to as the mid-north but it’s all part of the same district,” says Mr Ayton, the Managing Director of Law North Ltd.

“It’s got a really wide range of people, some of the wealthiest people in New Zealand live on the strip – the east coast including the Bay of Islands – and some of the poorest live in the internal and western part, so you certainly get the extremes. One day you can be dealing with multi-million dollar houses and the other with the most vulnerable members of society. There’s people surviving on subsistence living who don’t have the money to spend much time with lawyers. But most lawyers are able to deal with the two levels, as well as everything in between.”

Mr Ayton says the poorer groups are reliant on pro bono which is something the firm is heavily involved in. Indeed, on Mr Ayton’s website profile there is a lengthy list of organisations he has helped out including Kerikeri RSA, Food Bank, the Kerikeri Cruising Club, Kerikeri Community Gym, and the Kerikeri Civic Trust.

“It’s part of life in a small community. We all like to do it but it’s also an expected part of working in a small town.”

Large number of lawyers

For a small town – with a population of about 6,500 – Kerikeri has a large number of lawyers; 30 are listed on the New Zealand Law Society’s Register of Lawyers. Only Wellington and Queenstown have more lawyers per capita.

“Obviously people like to live here which is an attraction to working in an area, and there’s a higher number of lawyers than you would find in a town of this size but it’s a reflection of what’s been happening over the last 20 years: Kerikeri has become more of a service centre for the Bay of Islands and the surrounding area. There were a lot more lawyers operating in the other towns but they have slowly drifted towards Kerikeri,” says Richard Ayton.

“There’s probably a total pool of about 20,000 people if you took the whole of the mid-north area. The big box retailers have opened up here and that means most people come here at some stage for their retail experience. And that means they all use the local engineers, surveyors, accountants, lawyers, etc.”

The Far North has changed massively from when Mr Ayton first moved there – it was largely horticultural but he says it is now very much a place to retire to, although he adds that it is a fantastic place for families to bring up children.

Mr Ayton was brought up in mid-Canterbury and began his career in Christchurch where he worked his way to partnership.

While the better climate was a pretty valid reason for moving to Northland, his involvement in sailing was a primary contribution. Mr Ayton has competed at the highest levels, including the prestigious Sydney to Hobart race.

“I’ve done quite a lot of offshore sailing, and I also competed in the Auckland-Fiji race, a race to Vanuatu and some competitions in Australia.”

His house contains a “good few medals and trophies, momentoes of the past”, but completing the Sydney-Hobart race stands out as his sailing highlight.

Plenty of work

La-Verne King says while the bulk of the Far North’s lawyers are based in Kerikeri there are a healthy number of practitioners based in and around Kaitaia, including lawyers focusing heavily in family law.

“There’s definitely a lot of work up here. Kaitaia is a town that services a wide area, from Cape Reinga down to the east coast over to Hokianga Harbour then you go down to the Mangamukas. That’s a huge area. There are a lot of people who have moved here; people who have moved out of Auckland, or are getting close to retirement or are retired, or just looking for a different lifestyle. It’s absolutely beautiful and a lot of people come up here to visit and never leave.”

Ms King has had to limit the amount of new work she takes on due to her appointment to the three-member panel, alongside fellow family law practitioner Chris Dellabarca and human rights expert Rosslyn Noonan, reviewing the 2014 Family Court reforms, which she expects will take her until May 2019.

“There are a lot of negative connotations around the Far North but on the other hand there is an awful lot of good about this place. There are so many beaches, there’s fantastic communities and so much else going on.”

Bread and butter legal

Mark Patterson was born in Kaitaia and his family on his mother’s side are related to one of the first Pākehā missionaries to arrive in the area, William Gilbert Puckey. Despite doing a science degree, he preferred law. His father, Clive Patterson, had been a lawyer since 1965 and only retired in 2015.

Mr Patterson took over the practice with Simon Punshon to form Patterson Law Ltd.

It’s a general practice which Mr Patterson says does the bread and butter legal stuff for Kaitaia and beyond.

“About 80% of our work is conveyancing, estates, trusts, family law – which Simon deals with – and if anyone comes in with a specialist matter like tax law or intellectual property we would refer them on to a more specialist lawyer. We do a lot of farm transactions and a fair bit of commercial work.”

Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson

Mr Patterson says Kaitaia is changing like most of the townships in the district. “Kaitaia went through the doldrums in the mid-2000s but since then it has certainly taken off.”

“We are a totally different demographic from Kerikeri and the Bay of Islands in terms of business and also we have a very high Māori population. Socio-economically we are very different to that part of the Far North; there isn’t the same money floating around and we don’t have the same sort of horticulture as Kerikeri. However, further north, there’s a lot of avocado orchards being developed and purchased and that’s an industry that’s really taking off.

“We call ourselves the ‘Real Far North’.”

Mark Patterson says despite the distance from the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Law Society – which includes all of Northland – there is good collegiality with pretty much all lawyers knowing one another.

“We all get on and know each other pretty well, and socialise together with the odd bar dinner, but as for professional development the distance does make it tricky because the nearest seminars are in Auckland and that’s 300 kilometres away. It would be nice if they could do the odd seminar in the Far North, even in Kerikeri as lawyers this way out could attend those.”

Court issues

Barrister Catherine Cull is based in Kaikohe, and came from Christchurch 20 years ago where she worked at both the Crown Solicitors and the private bar. Like La-Verne King she moved to the Far North for family reasons.

Ms Cull works in the Kaikohe, Kaitaia and Whangarei courts “using up a lot of petrol and spending a lot of hours in the car”.

“Apart from the travel, which is immense, we have issues with clients who don’t have cellphones, and if they do have cellphones they don’t have credit, plus they won’t have landlines, so there’s real difficulties in contacting clients before their court appearances.”

She also says there are issues with seeing people in custody, particularly those who have been transferred to Mt Eden prison in Auckland with limited times to visit and a “minimum” seven-hour round trip.

“We try to have AVL appointments directly in prison and then we try to see whether they can be transferred to Ngawha (Northland Regional Corrections Facility in Kaikohe) so we can actually have a face-to-face particularly if they are going to trial.”

She says due to scheduling clashes she often has to appear in Kaitaia Court in the morning and race to the Kaikohe court in the afternoon, more than a two-and-a-half hour round trip.

The total population of the Far North District is 55,731 according to the 2013 census. Of that 22,110 are Māori, ranking it fifth of the 67 districts nationally for the proportion of Māori residents. Te Reo Māori is spoken by 15% of the area’s peoples.

A total of 3.8% of the population identifies as Pacific, lower than the national figure of 7.3%. Just 15.3% of Far North residents were born overseas, compared to 25% nationally.

Incomes are generally lower – 47.1% of people have an annual income of $20,000 or less, compared with 38.2% for the whole of New Zealand. Access to the internet and car ownership are lower than the national rates.

While Kerikeri (6,504 people and 30 lawyers) is the largest settlement, there are number of other significant towns including Kaitaia (17 lawyers), Kaikohe (13 lawyers), Hokianga, Paihia (1 lawyer), Moerewa, Kawakawa, Ahipara and Russell (1 lawyer). Mangonui right up the top has three lawyers.

The main employment areas are: health care and social assistance; retail trade; education and training; agriculture, forestry and fishing; accommodation; and food services.