New Zealand Law Society - The beginnings of community law

The beginnings of community law

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The Auckland District Law Society’s pilot neighbourhood law office, opened in 1978, was hailed a success.

The office, located at Grey Lynn, was the first of its kind in the country, and is chronicled in the New Zealand Law Society 1978 Annual Report.

The glowing report says the government of the day agreed to provide a grant toward the running of the office for a further year. Continuation of the office until the end of March 1979 was thus assured.

The philosophy behind the progressive scheme was clear in the report, as it described the office as providing a “service, at little or no cost, for people who would not otherwise have obtained legal advice or assistance because of language difficulty or lack of money or ignorance.”

The report said the work of the neighbourhood law office demonstrated that it was the logical extension of legal aid on a continuing rather than a case-by-case basis, and that an annual grant from the government for the whole cost of the office should be sought as part of an overall scheme of government funded legal aid.

It also stipulated that “the office must be financed on a continuous basis if continuity is to be assured”.

It later became apparent that if it were to be a credible source of legal advice, it would need to handle criminal matters, traffic matters, matrimonial and family matters.

Whenever possible, clients were referred to practitioners in private practice.

It was overseen by the supervisory committee comprising the President and one other member of the Auckland District Law Society Council, the secretary of that society and its immediate past-President, two other solicitors, and a representative of the Department of Justice.

The solicitor and social worker on the staff regularly attended meetings. There was also a local advisory committee, the members of which came from the local community.

More community law centres (CLCs) established themselves in their local communities, (Wellington and Canterbury a few years after Grey Lynn and then progressively throughout New Zealand), basing their work entirely on the needs and demands of these communities. Many CLCs had no paid staff and were run entirely by volunteer lawyers.

In 1984 CLCs formed the Coalition of Community Law Centres Aotearoa, to act as an umbrella body for most centres. This coincided with the first definite decision by the then Department of Justice to provide funding for all CLCs.

It was governed by managers of CLCs, who initially met only to discuss funding issues, but discussions turned to wider matters. The meetings grew from one-day meetings into hui lasting days on local marae. The coalition’s hui is still held annually every September.

The CLCs received statutory recognition in 1991, in the form of the Legal Services Act 1991.

Since then, the law governing CLCs and the broader legal aid scheme has changed. The most recent change has been the introduction of the Legal Services Act 2011.

In 2011 the CLCs formed Community Law Centres o Aotearoa (CLCA), a national body with an independent board and separate staff. Its aims included better co-ordinating the skills, knowledge and resources of CLCs, facilitating high quality service delivery and securing increased resources, including financial resources, to assist CLCs to best meet the needs of their communities.

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