It’s a new era for Community Law Centres o Aotearoa with a funding boost in the new Government’s first budget and a new head, the ex Labour MP Sue Moroney.
Ms Moroney is a self-proclaimed “street fighter” who was prominent in campaigns around pay equity and stopping early childhood education funding cuts, and won the extension of paid parental leave to six months when she was in Parliament.
A one-off payment of $2.2 million was given by Finance Minister Grant Robertson in May, the first increase from central government in 10 years.
The Budget top-up will help take the pressure off community law centres and Ms Moroney says, due to such a long funding freeze, the new money is effectively catch-up funding.
“Some parts of our organisation have had cuts over the past 10 years, so at a time of growing demand and hardship in the community, our services have been really struggling, and have been in survival mode. We have borrowed heavily off the goodwill and passion of our staff to keep things going. So that $2.18 million we see as being a down-payment on the debt that we owe to staff for hanging in through those really tough times.”
Community Law Centres employ about 170 people nationally, of which 80 are lawyers, on top of the 1200 lawyers who provide pro bono services. The services are provided out of 24 community law centres but those centres reach out to more than another hundred locations, many in rural areas.
Ms Moroney says each of the 24 centres will make decisions about how they will use that funding in response to community needs. “But my heavy recommendation to those centres is that it is time for the staff to get a little bit of compensation.”
But she adds that there will be some investment needed to help those who cannot afford legal advice in the normal fashion. This is under discussion in a review of community law centres currently being undertaken with the Ministry of Justice that will go forward for Budget 2019.
“We also see the opportunity now to extend the work that Community Law does. We know that the unmet legal needs are substantial and Colmar Brunton’s recent survey for the Ministry of Justice shows that there’s about 130,000 New Zealanders who have legal needs in the bracket of income that we provide for, and haven’t been able to find their way through our doors.”
Among the groups not receiving as much help as they should are Māori, and Ms Moroney says that is a priority for the organisation.
“We know that, in particular, we can do better in engaging with Māori and making our services more accessible and available to Māori. It’s an obligation we have under the Treaty of Waitangi and it’s a priority that the Government has set as well.
“We get a lot of Māori people coming in, but it is not as high as it should be in terms of the representation of Māori who are, sadly for this country, in those low-decile income groups. Māori feature far too highly in the deprivation indexes and the proportion of Māori who are seeing our volunteers doesn’t match that level of deprivation.
“What excites me is the type of preventative work that we do so that people know what their rights and responsibilities are so that we can, I guess, head off some of the unecessary tangles that people get themselves in.”
It is perhaps a little-known fact the bulk of the community law centres’ funding comes from the Lawyers and Conveyancers Special Fund which collects interest from banks on solicitors’ and licensed conveyancers’ nominated trust accounts. Each year the balance in the fund is paid to the Secretary of Justice to help fund community law centres.
In 2017 it amounted to $6.998 million, and the previous year it was $7.333 million. The Ministry of Justice tops up the funding to just under $11 million. A small, additional amount comes from a special fund from banks which changes every year.
Is that enough?
“We have a report from NZIER who have looked at our service and they have estimated that the value that we give back to New Zealanders is somewhere between three and five times the amount of funding that we receive from the government. So there’s a lot of value captured in what we do, because we do have the 1,200 volunteers who are providing all the wonderful legal advice for people, and we are a very lean and mean organisation in the way we operate.”
Double the money
Ms Moroney says the amount of money they need in order to provide a really valuable service is double what they do receive, which is currently about $11 million annually. That would enable the centres to reach a lot more people who need legal assistance.
“There are people in low-paying jobs but are in the next couple of deciles up who are struggling and come knocking on our doors all the time. These are people on the minimum wage and have three children and they haven’t got the money for a legal matter which might be about the care of their children.
“In recent years with the centres being squeezed funding-wise they have had to make really difficult decisions about who was needy and who wasn’t.
“The Government has to think about how much they want to address inequality in society through people’s inability to access justice – that’s an issue to make decisions on. We’ve got the infrastructure and the governance arrangements, as well as the depth and breadth around the country to do a job in delivering that.”
Sue Moroney was a journalist and union educator in Waikato before being elected to Parliament for Labour in 2005 on the list. She decided not to run again last year.
“I ran campaigns around issues like extending paid parental leave and won those from opposition in Parliament so I guess I bring that street fighter element with me to Community Law. It is an organisation I worked closely with as an MP and I was really impressed with the quality of service and the kaupapa, the culture of the service as well,” she says.
“I see it as carrying on my lifelong project of carrying on social justice, that was the reason I went into Parliament and now the skills and experience I have gained in Parliament are quite valuable to a role like this.
“It’s a little bit like returning home, I have a background with the trade union movement and that’s about making sure people know about their rights as well so I feel that same level of commitment and passion and collectivism in the community law movement so it feels a little like coming home.”