The Ministry of Justice says its plan to consolidate the legal aid granting function from eight offices into two will be completed in June 2017 when the Rotorua and New Plymouth offices close. Applications and files from both offices will be transferred to Wellington.
A summary of the plan for change released by the ministry says the new operating model for both the granting and debt management functions supports its commitment to modernising services for customers.
It says the plan optimises legal aid granting and debt to prepare for technology advancements and digitisation. The granting functions will be consolidated into two offices: Takapuna and Wellington.
Under the summarised plan, the new structure will be in place in October 2016, with the new processes going live in November.
The Waitakere office will close in January 2017 (with applications/files transferred to Takapuna) and the Napier office will also close that month (applications/files transferred to Wellington). The Christchurch office will close in March 2017 (applications/files transferred to Wellington), and Manukau will close in May (applications/files transferred to Takapuna).
During and after the changes, customers will be able to continue to access Legal Aid Services through the phone 0800 2 LEGAL AID (0800 253 425).
Law Society calls for better consultation
New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck says that as with other changes made to the legal aid system relating to internal restructuring and office closures, there was limited consultation, if any, by the ministry with other affected parties such as lawyers and clients.
"Consultation is more than an eleventh-hour disclosure of plans just before they are released or implemented. It needs to genuinely consider the impact of any planned changes on the people who will be impacted," she says.
"While it is accepted that these changes are operationally internal, the reality is that they will have an impact on the delivery of justice. We understand that the Government has to ensure it optimises its resources and we support efficiencies which will benefit everyone. However, maintaining - or ideally improving - access to justice should be the priority."
Ms Beck says any cost cutting or office consolidation must not compromise the delivery of justice. She says the Law Society is always ready to provide input and make constructive suggestions on any planned changes to the justice system.
"We will watch how these changes actually work in practice and we will raise any concerns promptly with a view to proactively working through any issues."