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From the Law Society

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A huge issue for New Zealand

There has been much talk about Access to Justice, but what is it?

“It is a much broader concept than access to the courts and litigation. It encompasses a recognition that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law and that rights are meaningless unless they can be enforced. It is about protecting ordinary and vulnerable people and solving their problems.” (Michael Mansfield QC)

In this issue of LawTalk, we take a look at access to civil justice just over one year on from the ground-breaking New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Address Justice Helen Winkelmann delivered on this topic in November 2014. We will read about some of the wonderful work that is being done around the country to address the concerns raised.

However, the issue of access to justice is, of course, much wider than the cost of accessing the civil justice system. It is around how easy (or not) it is for people to understand and access the justice system and then how responsive that system is to resolving disputes or grievances.

We are all well aware of the economic barriers to accessing justice in both the criminal and family jurisdictions with the reduction in legal aid. And there are significant social and economic issues with accessing justice for Māori, Pacific Island, Asian and other ethnic groups in New Zealand, as well as for those who are vulnerable due to health, disability or other reasons.

Addressing issues with access to justice is critical not only from a social responsibility perspective but also, as lawyers, from a professional perspective.

We – as professionals – should care about the fact that there are major issues with people being able to understand, enter and use a system within which we play an integral part.

We need to have a look at our justice system – and when I say we, I don’t mean just the law profession, I mean Parliament and other stakeholders. If we don’t, we will fail those who use the system.

We need to review and reflect on our current system and how it can be improved. How can we bring it up to date, make the most of the tools that we have and develop a response to the issues we are finding? This includes issues of cost, timeliness, and complexity.

As lawyers we need to actively participate in discussion and debate around alternative systems or suggested changes. We need to be part of that debate to make sure that any proposed changes are effective and, importantly, that they do not undermine the rule of law.

As a profession we are privileged, we have been granted standing within the system. We need to continue to be worthy of that privilege. Not only should we constructively participate in any process that reviews access to justice, but we are perfectly placed to develop ideas of our own and we should do so.

Addressing the issues around access to justice in New Zealand is likely to require some fundamental changes to how the system (or at least parts of it) operate. It seems to me that the profession needs to engage in investigating what these changes should be, if not take the lead in that process.

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