New Zealand Law Society - Caryl O'Connor, Community Law Otago Managing Solicitor

Caryl O'Connor, Community Law Otago Managing Solicitor

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Community Law Otago has a roster of about 80 lawyers, 60 of whom are on an active rotation of five to six weeks. The centre also has about 90 law students on fortnightly rotation who work in groups of seven.

Community Law Otago managing solicitor Caryl O’Connor says lawyers from the city volunteer their time to help those students interview clients, conduct legal analysis and help steer them through the issues.

“The students are taken through the ideal interview process, determine the facts, the law, how the law is applied to the fact situation and what options are available to the client.

“We’ve the flexibility to allow for students and lawyers to participate as their availability varies … Most of those lawyers were law students at Otago and went through the law centre as students,” she says.

Change to the structure

The centre has changed student training this year to make the experience gained “more of a bridge between law school and professional studies”, according to Ms O’Connor.

This initiative came from a review process last year, which aimed to devise ways to gather and measure quality of service and to enhance the service to clients by honing the techniques of the students.

“So instead of training people madly at the beginning of the year and expecting them to remember it all, we’ve drawn the training out into an orientation session at the beginning, followed by some good written support work. Ongoing exercises and tutorials to practise interview skills and other more practical legal work with self-reflection techniques and case studies are undertaken throughout the year.

“That means when the students leave, we hope that their practical legal skills and case and client management skills have been identified and practically applied; the students can track their own progress over the course of the year,” she says.

Ms O’Connor says local lawyers on the roster are positive about the new programme.

“The lawyers are the facilitators of the conversations. The issues are workshopped, they guide the discussion and give the pointers as to where further questions need to asked, what further information needs to be gained and then canvas with the students the options the client may have available for resolution.

“They also really enjoy working with the law students, scouting out for new recruits and catching up on what the gossip is at law school. The students gain a lot, too, from having a rotation of lawyers. The approach employed to get to a resolution varies from lawyer to lawyer.”

The centre’s workload and unique legal issues in Dunedin

Over the course of the year, the student advice clinic will help at least 2,500 people, Ms O’Connor says.

If you include information contacts or people dropping in for brochures etcetera, staff assistance, 0800 numbers and rural clinics, the centre will see about 10,000 walk through its door every year.

According to Ms O’Connor fixed term tenancy issues, debt issues, family issues as well as hospitality, rural sector and retail employment matters are “huge” areas for the centre. Certain legal issues tend to crop up at specific times of the year.

She says November is “neighbours’ month”, when the weather picks up and everyone does some alterations and fences and chop trees, and mid-winter brings a spike in separations.

Future endeavours for the centre

The centre is still working on how to distribute limited resources to best fit the needs of the Otago region, according to Ms O’Connor.

As part of this drive, the centre changed its operational name to Community Law Otago last month.

“We intend to stay afloat and reach as many people as we can. The purpose of the community law centre is to reduce barriers to the access of justice.

“The profession is very supportive of what we do … eyes are kept on what we’re doing, by the profession, to make sure that we’re not stepping outside the boundaries, but they’re more than happy to refer people here.”

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