New Zealand Law Society - Fellowship winner rethinks disability support system

Fellowship winner rethinks disability support system

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At about this time each year, I like to encourage our best and brightest legal scholars to get their applications in for New Zealand’s premier legal research award.

The Law Foundation’s International Research Fellowship, Te Karahipi Rangahau ā Taiao (IRF), offers $125,000 for multi-year study in New Zealand and overseas that makes a significant contribution to our law.

Over the years, IRF recipients have produced ground-breaking work that has improved understanding and application of law in many and varied areas including mental capacity, the environment, cross-examination procedure, patient safety, the Treaty of Waitangi and international law.

The excellent work of recent IRF recipients suggests they will continue the established trend. Last year’s winner, Warren Forster, has taken on nothing less than a fundamental “world first” conceptual rethink of how we organise and fund health and disability services. His early ideas are attracting considerable interest from policy-makers, and offer the prospect of improved access to quality care for many who struggle to navigate the system.

Mr Forster is a Dunedin barrister whose work with ACC claimant support group Acclaim Otago led to a review of the ACC appeals system by the previous government. Acclaim highlighted many cases where access to ACC support had been unreasonably denied.

New system

His IRF project will propose a new system that removes the current causal distinction between sickness and injury-based disability, as envisaged by ACC founding architect Sir Owen Woodhouse. His solution would involve creating a single agency combining functions from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development and ACC.

Mr Forster has recently returned from researching health and social support services in Europe. He says that, while models in use there offered no “off the shelf” solution for New Zealand, several countries are moving towards addressing the escalating costs of disability support by consolidating services rather than the traditional approach of tightening entitlements.

“Ageing populations and increasing costs of services are having to be met by a reducing percentage of the population who are working age. We can’t just keep on increasing taxes,” he says.

Much of the current public spending on health is being diverted from patient care to enforcing boundaries between bureaucracies, Mr Forster says. He estimates that the government spends $1-2 billion each year on systems that box people into defined areas and exclude them from others.

“It’s not just the cost of enforcing these boundaries that’s problematic, it’s their datasets as well,” he says. “Bureaucrats put stuff in boxes depending on factors like age, accident and mental health. But almost everything that happens in life is multi-factorial, so we have inaccurate datasets. If we really want to learn, prevent injury and make communities safer, we need datasets that can take multiple variables into account.”

While a single-agency solution seems appealing in theory, the potential extra cost of extending entitlements to more claimants is an obvious concern. His solution to that is a “sovereign wealth fund” approach, replacing taxation with a levy-based funding system similar to the ACC model.

“We need to extend the ACC funding model across the health and disability support system,” he says. “ACC has $40 billion in the bank – it makes more money from return on investment than it pays out. In recent years it could have collected no levies and still fully funded the cost of the system. We need to work towards something that doesn’t require ever-increasing taxes to support.”

Warren Forster says ACC has a proven track record of producing returns above benchmark over many decades.

“Any reduction in investment returns would simply extend the timeframe before the system could be self-funding. The greater use of a large investment fund and levy system presents an alternative source of revenue, so the Government doesn’t have to resort to controversial new sources like GST exemptions or a capital gains tax.”

Discussion paper

Mr Forster will soon issue a discussion paper providing more detail on his proposed new health and disability system based on a single agency backed by a sovereign wealth fund. While he doesn’t want to “name names” just yet, he says his ideas have attracted strong interest from senior politicians and officials.

His project looks set to continue the tradition of influential research established by previous IRF winners. He encourages people to apply: “This award provides a rare opportunity for academics and lawyers to do serious, in-depth research on complex issues.”

The deadline for this year’s IRF award applications is 1 September – for more information, visit or contact Lynda Hagen directly at

NZ Law Foundation scholarship and awards deadlines

  • NZLF Doctoral Scholarship (in Law) – 31 August.
  • NZLF International Research Fellowship – 1 September.
  • NZLF Cleary Memorial Prize – 30 September.
  • NZLF Ethel Benjamin Scholarship – 1 March 2019.

For terms of reference and application guidelines for all awards and scholarships visit the ‘Apply for Scholarships’ tab at

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