Each year more than half a million inquiries are made at the 83 branches of Citizens Advice Bureau.
While the trained volunteers are able to deal with most inquiries themselves, some people require more specialist help, and 58 of the CAB’s sites provide legal clinics – equating to about 3,000 pro bono hours contributed by lawyers annually.
“Many people who contact the CAB for help are navigating issues that are fundamentally about the application and implementation of the law. Many of these clients are vulnerable and struggle to obtain access to their rights,” says the CAB’s Chief Executive, Kerry Dalton.
The CAB is the first port of call for most people with a legal inquiry who can’t afford to take it to a lawyer.
“People come to us with inquiries across the whole range of issues that affect people in their daily lives,” says Sacha Green, the CAB’s National Advisor – Legal & Strategic.
“Our approach is to empower people with knowledge of their legal rights and responsibilities and to support them with options so they can take the next step. The CAB has an essential role to play in improving access to justice, and one that is complementary to the more specialised role that lawyers play.”
The CAB has a knowledge base containing 2,600 question and answer pages on 325 different topics, providing a powerful resource for its 2,300 volunteers.
Most common inquiries
The five most common areas of inquiry are citizenship/immigration, legal services, conditions of work, rental housing and relationship issues.
Ms Green says in many CABs there is a long-standing arrangement for lawyers to provide a pro bono service: “it’s an opportunity to give back to the community where there is a need”.
Jock Nicolson, a consultant with MinterEllisonRuddWatts, first became involved at CAB from “the late 60s or early 70s” as a volunteer on the legal roster of CAB Wellington at the former church in Newtown, now the Newtown Community and Cultural Centre and still home to the suburb’s CAB.
In 2005 Mr Nicolson became the honorary solicitor for New Zealand CAB and he is also honorary solicitor for Age Concern. He remains on the roster of lawyers for Wellington CAB at its Kilbirnie centre.
“I have found being involved with both organisations keeps me in touch over very worthwhile causes with a large number of people whom I would not otherwise meet up with in daily legal practice,” he says.
The CAB is funded in two ways. Central government provides funding to the national body for the national infrastructure including the knowledge base, a helpdesk and the learning and development system.
Local bureaux are funded through councils, philanthropic trusts, Lottery funding, and some offices have contracts with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to provide a face-to-face information service for new migrants.
That means they are subject to the whims of local government. This was exposed in June when the Wellington City Council denied CAB a renewal of its three-year grant – more than $200,000 a year – to run its five branches. The council also wanted to see a complete redesign of the organisation’s operation, which would include only mobile branches.
That led to a petition and several meetings between the two parties with a new course of action being agreed which ensured that the CAB would receive its current funding in the first year with funding for the following two years being determined by a review process.
Other CABs have not been so lucky, and in Gisborne the local CAB has lost its council funding.
“It does mean that the landscape is changing and we need to make sure that the value of our service is recognised in a way that ensures the viability of the organisation. There needs to be a cohesive understanding of the CAB service between central and local government,” says Sacha Green.
“Central government places a high value on the data we collect, and the information and insights we can provide from our client inquiries. These insights are gained through the work done to support people and strengthen communities at a local level, so resourcing and funding at a local level is essential, as is adequate funding from central government for the national systems that support all CABs.”
The CAB also makes submissions on legislation and policy issues to better serve vulnerable people. One recent submission was made on the letting fees for tenants. Housing Minister Phil Twyford introduced the Residential Tenancies (Prohibiting Letting Fees) Amendment Bill to Parliament in March.
“We support banning letting fees as they represent a cost that ultimately benefits the landlord and is being unreasonably passed on to tenants. From our client inquiries we can see that letting fees are being charged in unfair and unjust situations, including where the charge bears no correlation to any actual expense,” says Ms Green.
“Being a universal service we really do see anything and everything and that means we can draw on those observations to give insights into the development of the law. Our client inquiries tell a powerful story of what’s not working and what needs to change.”