New Zealand Law Society - It's about helping people

It's about helping people

This article is over 3 years old. More recent information on this subject may exist.

"I've always wanted to be a lawyer," Dunedin criminal defender Catherine Ure says.

"I told my parents when I was quite young. I was about five or six when I said I was going to be a lawyer.

"I think quite realistically at age five or six you don't have much appreciation of necessarily what a lawyer is or what they do, but it stuck with me. It's something that I carried through with. Right through high school I was still saying: 'I want to be a lawyer'."

Photo of Catherine Ure
Catherine Ure

That was despite the fact that her mother, at one stage, was keen on her becoming a doctor.

So Ms Ure left her home in Kaeo, almost at the top of the North Island, to study law at Otago University in Dunedin, almost at the other end of New Zealand.

"I ended up getting a job here [in Dunedin] and staying here and I love it." Now she is one of three Dunedin-based Public Defence Service (PDS) lawyers.

What, then, was it that attracted her to the role?

Helping others

"I think it's the perception that being a lawyer is definitely a challenging job. I wanted to do something that is interesting. My motivation now is also about helping people.

"It's about helping people navigate through something – through a period that is very, very difficult for them. It's not something that most people want to navigate on their own.

"At the same time, you are ensuring that you are acting in your client's best interests and obviously acting in accordance with your professional obligations as a lawyer.

"But there are other skills that you can use to help your clients," Ms Ure says.

As well as representing clients, as a lawyer you frequently pick up other issues, some of which have contributed to the offending.

There may, for example, be literacy issues, or drug and alcohol issues, for example. And some of these issues "you can pick up right from the start".

That then gives the defence lawyer an opportunity to get their client some help, something Ms Ure says should be done "as soon as you can, because you shouldn't wait until later on to start these things".

The sooner the better

"I don't think it's all right to think that you can wait to get help with drug and alcohol issues at sentencing. The earlier you can get people help the better.

"It's putting people in contact with services that can help them, and it's making sure that you can give them access to lots of different options early on in the proceedings, to make sure that their needs are taken care of.

"Putting someone in touch with community alcohol and drug services is just a small example. Encouraging people to go and work with agencies like Workbridge and various social service agencies is something that I think is quite important.

"Of course you can't force them into it, but at least you know you've given them the options – that you are doing more than just standing up and advocating for them.

"You are giving them advice that they have often never had before," Ms Ure says.

Getting people help is important, she says, because "you don't want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

"I think that's a phrase that's probably used all too often but, for example, if you've got a client who's continually shoplifting and their shoplifting is a means of income and you find out they're not getting work because they can't read, well that's part of the problem.

"So if you can steer them in the right direction and start dealing with the literacy issues so that they can get into employment, one would hope that the thefts would stop.

"I think there are some quite incredible statistics on literacy problems within the New Zealand prison system. It's a well-known issue.

"It's even as simple as not being able to get your driver's licence. If you can't read or write, you can't pass the test," Ms Ure points out.

Public Defence Service

After graduating, Ms Ure completed her professionals full-time then started with Aspinall Joel in Dunedin in April 2009. Following her admission in May 2009, she worked as a staff solicitor with Campbell Savage and Sarah Saunderson-Warner.

Right from the start of her career, Ms Ure was involved in criminal law, the area of practice that she was interested in doing.

After two years with Aspinall Joel, she worked for Campbell Savage for about six months. Then she and Mr Savage both became members of the inaugural PDS team established by the Ministry of Justice. Mr Savage is the Public Defender Southern and the other team member is Andrew Dawson.

A thing that perhaps many people don't understand is that the PDS is a law firm, Ms Ure says.

"Working for the PDS I do the same job as I would in a private firm. I have the same obligations to my clients, and it's not as if we're different people because we work for the PDS.

"I think one of the advantages of working for the PDS, especially when you are in the early stages of your career, is that you get a lot of court time and that we have good networks.

"There are a hundred and forty something lawyers working for us now. If you want to talk to an expert on, say search and surveillance or something, you can just pick up the phone and call them.

"It is a very real advantage being a young practitioner and knowing that if you find a big issue, you can send out an email or pick up the phone and ring someone and have a chat about it. I think that something that is really, really important when you are in the early stages of your career is having a good support network," she says.

Very rewarding

"I think being a criminal lawyer, despite the public perceptions of the job, is a very rewarding career.

"No two days are ever the same and no file is the same as the last one.

"You do see some very sad stories but you also see some very positive outcomes, so it is rewarding. Criminal law in general is not for the fainthearted, I don't think. But like anything you have your heart in, if you work hard, you get good results," Ms Ure says.

Outside the law, she is involved in volunteer work. One example is her service on the Otago Metropolitan Judicial Board, which hears rugby disciplinary matters.

"That's something I've really enjoyed since being appointed last year." In that role, she sees a side of the game she has never before seen. Rugby is a sport she enjoys watching, with the ITM Cup being her favourite, although it is not a game she has played. She used to play football.

She also enjoys cooking and fishing, although she has not done so much fishing since moving to the South Island.

Lawyer Listing for Bots