New Zealanders from all walks of life will benefit from increased access to justice thanks to funding for our legal aid system in Budget 2022, the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa says.
Today’s budget sees an extra $190m over four years invested into maintaining and strengthening the legal aid system, including:
- $32.4m extra for criminal legal aid in 2022/23,
- $16.6m extra for family legal aid in 2022/23,
- $1.7m extra for civil legal aid in 2022/23, and
- $4.8m extra for duty solicitors and police detention legal assistance in 2022/23
“This is a victory for the many New Zealanders who will now be able to access legal advice and quality representation irrespective of their circumstances, and a day to celebrate a step in the right direction,” Law Society President Jacque Lethbridge says.
“The Law Society, practitioners and community law centres have long advocated for substantial increases to legal aid remuneration to curb the inequalities in an overburdened system. This budget recognises that the Ministry of Justice and the Government have listened to these calls”.
The Law Society’s 2021 Access to Justice survey showed that 25 per cent of legal aid lawyers planned to do less legal aid work or stop altogether over the next 12 months - the primary reason being inadequate remuneration. Over 20,000 Kiwis had been turned away from legal aid representation in the last 12 months.
“Equality of access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law and no person is immune from contact with the justice system. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the fundamental importance of the rule of law in regulating the individual’s engagement with the state,” Ms Lethbridge says.
“Lawyers who undertake legal aid work are deeply committed to ensuring fair and equitable access to justice. The fact practitioners are not prepared to continue is indicative of a system that desperately needs both structural change and better funding.
“Over 20,000 kiwis could not access legal aid representation in 2021. This is an indictment on a system which is supposed to ensure representation for people, irrespective of their status, and is absolutely critical to maintaining the fairness New Zealanders should expect from their legal system.
“While there is always more to do – and the Law Society will keep advocating for better support and structural change for our legal aid system - this boost in funding will go some way to ensuring fairness and equity return to the legal system New Zealanders must have trust and confidence in.”
Former President Tiana Epati is a strong champion for improving the legal aid system and led the Law Society’s Access to Justice campaign while President. She sees today’s announcement as offering some welcome relief to many.
“For the vulnerable and underprivileged people who cannot find legal assistance for family or criminal legal issues, the consequences may be life changing. Ensuring everyone has access to justice through legal representation is a critical pillar of any society. Legal aid was failing pre-Covid, and has been at breaking point for some time since the pandemic. Today’s announcement will go some way to ensuring not only are the delays addressed, but we can start to address the inequities which have arisen in the system”.
The Budget 2022 funding will not only help retain current legal aid lawyers but welcome others into the system to support the growing backlogs. 63 per cent of the lawyers surveyed in the Access to Justice survey conducted by the Law Society said they would get involved if the administrative burden was alleviated and better remuneration was offered.
“Aotearoa New Zealand has a proud history of wanting a justice system that ensures people are legally represented when interfacing with the courts,” Ms Lethbridge says.
“An effective legal aid system ensures that every New Zealander has a fair shot when engaged with that justice system and the role of lawyers in representing them is essential to accessing justice. This boost in funding will contribute to promoting that goal.
“We are proud of the work the Law Society has undertaken to get to this announcement today and we will continue to shine a light on any area of our justice system that fails New Zealanders,” Ms Lethbridge says.