New Zealand Law Society - 36 years on

36 years on

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Community Law Centres o Aotearoa CEO Liz Tennet says the community law philosophy of meeting unmet legal need remains paramount, with the national body striving to deliver national quality standards of work, advocacy and the promotion of shared resources of its centres.

“That philosophy is as strong as it ever was. As a result we do provide a service for a larger number of people but we are conscious that we need to continue to work as a movement of CLCs to continuously improve and do as much as we can to address the underlying drivers of legal problems,” she says.

There are 24 CLCs throughout the country working at 140 locations; helping vulnerable communities experiencing high levels of poverty with services to help solve legal problems, steering them away from the court system where applicable.

The centres are all independent charities and run with their own governance board.

There are 88 full- and part-time lawyers employed in CLCs, with over 1,200 lawyers working pro bono in clinics Ms Tennet says.

“We’re very grateful for that because the whole network would collapse without that support.”

A good flow of volunteering from many universities also helps provide legal advice to the client base of 250,000.

The next step, Ms Tennet says, is to reach people who need legal advice and assistance, but who don’t know where to go or don’t know they have the right to use the law to improve their situation.

More specifically, CLCs have policies in place to work more efficiently with Māori and Pacific Island clients by running clinics and offices within those communities.

“We want to be even better at it by creating more locations for the provision of services which specifically targets those groups,” Ms Tennet says.

She says there are growing legal needs for prisoner families and families of those who are on parole.

“We know that often there are a lot of problems that those families are experiencing, be it housing, debt problems, and family law type problems. We are looking at ways to increase the resources available to CLCs to be able to work with these families. We are confident that doing so would likely contribute to a reduced recidivism rate for their mainly male members of the family who are either on parole or in prison.”

Ms Tennet says CLCs are also looking to increase the availability of youth education about drug and alcohol use and its physical and social effects as CLCs see the impact that this can have on the increased need for legal services for this client group.

“We see a lot of young people come into our centres who have been badly treated by an employer.

“We are also seeking to provide more education on debt and how to avoid it.” Again, Ms Tennet says that by providing this education, CLCs will be able to help people to make better choices and ultimately to minimise their interaction with the legal system.

Housing problems such as rental disputes or spats within flats is another area where Ms Tennet says legal help is often needed.

She says working with other support-oriented organisations more closely is a goal for the CLCs.

“We know that there are potential clients out there who do need our services … We do our best to reach all vulnerable communities, but if we had more resource we could do more.”

Traditionally, the Lawyers and Convey-ancers Special Fund (the interest earned on law firms’ trust accounts) and Government funding has kept the CLCs afloat.

The special fund was established by the Government in 1982. It collects interest from banks on solicitors’ and licensed conveyancers’ nominated trust accounts. The fund is held in trust (administered by a Management Committee) and then paid to the Legal Services Agency.

Under s301 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 banks are entitled to retain 40% in lieu of banking charges and fees that would otherwise be payable to administer the accounts. Originally, banks were entitled to retain 50%.

The special fund was hit hard during the recession in 2008, causing a crisis in its funding and the Government gave CLCs a top-up to ease things. While the fund has performed better recently it is vulnerable to fluctuations in interest rates and business activity.

Last year the Government guaranteed $6.05 million per year for two years over and above the special fund. Ms Tennet says CLCs are continuing their dialogue with the Government in relation to funding beyond that.

“CLCs are exploring alternative funding options and seeking longer term certainty in relation to Government funding so that they can deliver their strategic plan of helping to reduce the long-term demand for their services and resolve issues before they escalate to the formal court system.

“We think we should be guaranteed funding for a three-year cycle at least, and that gives us some certainty.” Also, “it’s true that we need to search for some more sustainable funding.”

Ms Tennet said CLCA is working with Government to this end.

The New Zealand Bankers’ Association (NZBA) says the 40% figure is stipulated under s301 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 Act as to what may be retained in lieu of banking charges and fees that would otherwise be payable.

It says the funding model is vulnerable to changes in market conditions, such as periods of low interest rates and fewer house sales.

For this reason, the government has been asked to provide supplementary funding to CLCs from time to time.

The NZBA says interest rates have been at historic lows for some time and are widely tipped to rise over the next couple of years, which would benefit the funding model.

BNZ told LawTalk it has been in active discussions with CLCA in relation to this matter, and that it will be making an announcement regarding changes to its policy over the next few weeks, which aim to support CLCs.

Justice Minister Judith Collins says the Ministry of Justice is working with CLCs so that they are able to deliver community legal services in modern, innovative ways that people want and expect, and provide value for money for the taxpayer.

A priority for CLCs is to provide services that help people solve their legal problems as early as possible, and to steer them away from the court system where appropriate.

The Ministry of Justice contracts with 24 CLCs to deliver a negotiated number of hours of legal services to their local community, Ms Collins says.

“The number of hours is negotiated with each individual law centre and is based on historical levels of service delivery. The funding CLCs receive is proportionate to the number of hours they are contracted to deliver.

“The total level of annual funding is $10.97 million.

“The total funding is based on the maximum level of funding CLCs received through the Lawyers and Conveyancers’ Special Fund.

“The amount of money CLCs receive from the fund has halved since reaching this level in 2008 and the Government has provided about $36 million in funding since then.

“This includes the $12.1 million in funding the Government announced in 2013 for CLCs over two years.”

Ms Collins notes that the funding from the Lawyers and Conveyancers Special Fund, after the banks have taken their 40%, has to go to CLCs.

“Section 298 of the Act states that that all money standing to the credit of the Special Fund at the end of each month – less any costs incurred by the societies in the administration of the fund – must be paid to the Secretary for Justice for the purpose of funding community law centres.

“A community law centre for the purposes of the Act is ‘a body whose function includes the provision of community legal services’ and who has a contract with the Ministry of Justice for that purpose.”

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