In its response to the Independent Review Report, the Law Society has accepted in principle the proposal to establish a new independent regulator. The Review had said that the Law Society’s current structure; operating as both a regulator and membership body, was an outlier in comparison with overseas legal regulatory systems and among professional regulators in different fields here in New Zealand.
Some lawyers hesitant to access health and wellbeing services
The Law Society is aware that its regulatory functions can act as a deterrent to lawyers accessing its representative services. “There can be particular difficulties in responding to health and wellbeing concerns raised by practitioners. As New Zealand’s population ages, an increasing cohort of lawyers are facing health issues which have varying degrees of impact on their law practices. Many of these practitioners require support,” says Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch.
The Panel has acknowledged that the representative body for the profession is also the regulator, which potentially deters lawyers from talking with the Law Society about their concerns and seeking assistance and support. Separation of the representative function from the regulatory function will likely enable the representative body to have a stronger voice in support of lawyers.
Independence from government
At the moment the Law Society doesn’t receive any government funding and there was no suggestion in the Panel’s recommendation that it should in the future.
However, the Minister of Justice currently approves the annual practising certificate fee under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. Other regulators do not have this requirement.
This could be set by regulations including, if necessary, a method for any maximum year-on-year adjustment, to remove any government oversight of setting this fee.
The Law Society has also heard that, should an independent regulator be introduced; the functions and scale of the independent regulator should be carefully considered. Significant further work would be needed to confirm the likely actual costs.
The impact of a split
Currently, there is no timeframe for any proposed split, as legislative change would be required. The Law Society is now looking to government to indicate whether reform will be a legislative priority, so that further work can be undertaken to progress the required changes.