The 2016/17 Budget has offered some much needed replenishment and relief to legal aid services with $96 million being pumped in over the next four years for legal aid and community law centres. Some key parts of the package include:
- $17.2 million to increase eligibility for civil and family legal aid;
- $4.3 million for community law centres; and
- $54.5 million, and $20 million in 2015/16, for the provision of legal aid.
“What you’re seeing is a commitment from us across the board to enhance access to justice for those where cost is a real barrier,” Justice Minister Amy Adams says.
“Right across the board, whether it’s victims, Family Court work or offenders, making sure the court process is run smoothly and efficiently with access to legal counsel means everyone benefits.”
Ms Adams says civil and family legal aid helps people apply for protection orders, agree on parenting arrangements, settle employment disputes, and access many other types of court proceedings.
“Increasing eligibility will help 2,700 additional New Zealanders each year by 2018/19.”
The total boost to justice is valued at $208 million and just over $13 million of that money will be invested in the Public Defence Service (PDS) to ensure people facing criminal charges receive high-quality legal representation.
Will more PDS centres be opened?
But Ms Adams says no decision has been made yet on whether more PDS centres will be opened.
“When we set up the offices we have, we set a view that they would take up to 50% of the work in the centres where they’re situated. At the moment, their resourcing doesn’t allow them to take anywhere near the threshold we’ve set so it’s not changing the parameters of the share of work they could take but its making sure that those offices are first of all well-resourced to deal with the work that’s coming through,” she says.
Ms Adams says the cash injection is about the current services being able to sustain their share of work but also be able to attract and retain good staff.
“I think the Public Defence Service has been an incredibly successful initiative. I’m a huge supporter of it. I think it’s a fantastic training ground for young lawyers. I wish that when I’d been a young lawyer there had been these opportunities to do criminal defence work as a career and receive training from senior lawyers.”
But she says for that to work the sector needs to be able to attract and retain more senior lawyers and the extra funding is a reflection of the value of the service.
Is it difficult getting more senior lawyers?
“Talking anecdotally to public defenders offices, it’s always hard. Anyone in the profession will know that recruiting first and second year lawyers is not so bad but when you’re starting to look for third, fourth and fifth year lawyers it’s a competitive market and we have to make sure that we offer a work environment that is not so pressured that it’s not an attractive place to work,” she says.
Ms Adams says people who work in the PDS are generally there because they’re passionate about the work they’re doing, and they like training young lawyers.
Does more legal aid mean a less clogged up court system?
Ms Adams views the situation as a three-legged stool.
“When you look at the delays in the courts, there are three parties that need to take responsibility for that – the government in policy and funding, the judiciary and how they’re case managed and the profession.
“I’ve been a practitioner myself. We know the games that are played, the delay tactics, the burning off. We know the churn that goes through, and judges will talk to me often about working well to reduce delay but this investment in access to justice is really about saying that we need people to be able to get access to legal assistance when they need it,” she says.
The increased funding for community law centres recognises that Community Law’s traditional funding mechanism does not by itself deliver the amount needed to support the valuable work it does in communities across New Zealand, Community Law Centres o Aotearoa Chief Executive Elizabeth Tennet says.
This top up is “savvy investing by the Government and means Community Law can plan ahead with certainty,” Ms Tennet says.