New Zealand Law Society - Taking a break to secure our future

Taking a break to secure our future

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Lynda Hagen
Lynda Hagen

It is with a heavy heart I write this month’s article. As the old saying goes, sometimes in life one needs to try and find the silver lining in the dark clouds. This article feels a bit like that.

Recently the Law Foundation has had to make the tough but necessary decision to go into recess. This is to allow its funding base to rebuild so that, in time, it can relaunch to support a new generation of legal research. The decision was very difficult, but doing so now, while the Foundation has some remaining funds, provides the best prospect for its eventual revival and long-term sustainability. It is a brave decision: the alternative of depleting remaining funds and fading away was not acceptable to us.

Our last funding round will be in June 2020, after which no new grant applications will be accepted. Following that, the Foundation will gradually wind down as the projects on its books are completed.

None of us at the Foundation wanted to take this step. I’m personally disappointed about it, as is my board, but as we worked through the options over the last year, and bounced ideas off key stakeholders we engaged with, it became clear that this was the sad, but realistic, option that would ensure a better legal research future.

Our main difficulty has been our inability to replenish our funding base. We lost access to statutory funding in 2008 and since then our fund has steadily eroded to the point where we’ve had to make a difficult call: disperse our remaining funds over the next few years and consign ourselves to history, or call a halt, invest our remaining capital of approximately $12 million, and try to rebuild a funding base from which to re-launch in about 10-15 years’ time. We chose the latter course because we believe that, after a hiatus, we will be able to re-start sustainably and resume making grants.

Always backed quality projects

We know that the work we have supported has driven better legal and public policy practice in New Zealand. We have always sought out quality projects and people to back. We have never sought a high profile, preferring to be the enabler of great research, and ensuring the projects we support get the attention, rather than the Foundation itself. Maybe that back seat role has been part of our problem. People do not seem to make the link between the success of the amazing work we support and the Law Foundation that made it possible.

There is, of course, the opportunity to speed the Law Foundation’s return to the market through financial donations. Even though we are going into recess, the Foundation would be open to receive donations for its general work or for specific projects. That would reduce the length of our recess period. It is regrettable, despite the value we have added to New Zealand’s public good, and the importance to us all of quality, independent legal research, we have never received a single donation since we started making grants in 1992. It is not too late.

We are taking this step because we genuinely believe that our work, and the niche we fill supporting “better law” and good public policy, is too important to dispense with altogether. The timing of our decision to “hibernate” dovetails well with the recent arrival of another funder, the Borrin Foundation. This provides legal researchers with another potential source of support in the interim.

We have always sought out innovative, future-focused projects. We have initiated research into new thinking in law and policy around human reproductive technologies, better approaches to regulation, and rapidly-emerging new technologies including digital currencies, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, and so-called “brain fingerprinting”.

Thanks to projects backed by us over 26 years, Family Court procedure has improved, the treatment in court of vulnerable witnesses including children and sexual violence victims has got better, the use of Urgency in Parliament was revised, and the ACC appeals process has been overhauled.

Our projects led to the first restorative justice initiatives, addressed Māori and Treaty issues, and enabled changes and new thinking on human rights, the constitution, the environment and mental health, to name but a few.

Alongside research, the Foundation has supported projects that strengthen legal practice, for example through support of legal education and mooting competitions.

All of this and more has been recognised by those who know us well, including academia, the law deans, the Law Society, and many in the judiciary and in legal practice.

We sincerely appreciate the backing we have had from key stakeholders as we worked through taking this difficult decision, particularly from our former Patron, Dame Sian Elias, former trustees, the Law Society and the law deans. While all are disappointed that the Law Foundation is going into recess, they understand the rationale for the decision, and see this as the best way to secure a brighter future for legal research.

Personally, after more than 20 years at the helm of the Foundation, I have got to know our legal research community very well. I will miss our interactions, my visits to the law faculties, and the excitement I always feel from hearing the passion researchers have for their work, and their aspirations to “make things better”. I feel very privileged to have been part of this for so many years.

Lynda Hagen is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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