Porirua Kapiti Community Law Centre
By Tracey Cormack
The former Whitireia Community Law Centre says its recent move from Hagley Street in Porirua will improve access to legal services for its clients.
It also has a new name to go with the new location – the Porirua Kapiti Community Law Centre. The newly fitted out offices are on the ground floor of the BNZ Tower, which is also close to the Porirua District Court, but now more accessible to clients, being at street level in the heart of the shopping precinct.
The centre was started in 1995 on the campus of the Whitireia Community Polytechnic following the demise of the Cannons Creek Community Law Centre. The law centre moved from the polytech in 1997 but there was always some lingering confusion regarding the ‘Whitireia’ part of the name and whether the law centre was still linked to the polytech. Mike Sceats, the centre’s Managing Solicitor, recalls that people have come to the law centre to enrol in classes, or thought the law centre might be a place one could study to become a lawyer.
“The old name gave no indication of the area we cover, so we were constantly having to explain to people that we look after residents from Grenada North to the Otaki River, the same area served by the Porirua District Court,” says Mr Sceats. “Whitireia is a local maunga (mountain), but outside of a few who know our history, most people didn’t know why we had that in our name.”
Mr Sceats says being called the Porirua Kapiti Community Law Centre will give people a better idea of where they are and what they do.
Whiti te ra – into the light
The law centre has also adopted the moto ‘whiti te ra’ meaning ‘into the light’ – a reference to Ngāti Toa Rangatira’s famous haka ‘Ka Mate Ka Mate’. The motto speaks to the law centre’s mission to ‘elucidate’ the complexities of the law for lay people and at the same time emphasise the strong bond with Ngāti Toa who have been represented on the law centre’s governing board from the outset. The new logo has similarly been approved by Ngāti Toa Rangatira.
Mr Sceats says the old offices in Hagley Street were cramped and seismically dubious. The lawyers’ computers were all donated and the phone system was 23 years old. Some clients found access to the third floor difficult so the lawyers would have to borrow a room from the Whare Manaaki Inc, Porirua Women’s Refuge, on the ground floor.
After 10 years without an increase in funding to community law centres (CLCs) nationally, the 2018 Budget allocated an increase of $2.2 million to be divided between the 24 CLCs throughout Aotearoa. The Porirua centre received $60,000 and Mike Sceats says some of that allocation was used to raise the salaries of his junior lawyers to the living wage while the remainder was saved toward the move.
Mr Sceats says he doesn’t understand how the Ministry of Justice allocates funding between law centres, “but as I understand it, I’m not alone”.
“Long ago the Legal Services Agency devised a funding system based on the number of hours each centre spent on client files. Then it was thought to be more appropriate to gear funding to the number of clients. Then it was hours again and now we’re back to the number of clients, but only those we provide ‘casework’ services to. Legal information is free and not means tested.”
The law centre has a comparatively high casework target for a catchment area of about 100,000 people when compared with Wellington/Hutt CLC which serves 300,000 but then, as Mike Sceats says, “this law centre has always punched above its weight and regarded itself as a law practice”.
“Unlike most CLCs we only hire legally qualified staff, and our volunteers are either third or fourth year law students, or international students completing the ‘overseas placement’ component of their degrees”. In its 24 years the centre has hosted over 50 students from Germany alone.
Several years ago, the 24 CLCs formed Community Law Centres o Aotearoa (CLCA) to be an organisation for information sharing, advocacy and, where authorised, a bargaining agent with the government. CLCA negotiates some aspects of funding, but individual CLC trust boards all sign individual contracts with the ministry for their core funding, including the target number of casework clients. And any CLC can only count each client once, even if they come in multiple times.
Increase in clients
The centre has had a 15.9% increase in clients through the door in the last year, which was on top of an increase of 18% the year before. They are also contracted to deliver free legal education sessions to community groups – a minimum of 30 education sessions reaching at least 500 people. To meet these targets, law centre staff interact with a number of local NGOs – such as Partners Porirua (gateway classes at schools, clinics and marae), the East Porirua mosque, Wesley Community Action, Māori Woman’s Refuge, staff training, domestic violence education and clinics at the Kapiti CAB.
While the centre can take 40 inquiries a day there is also a massive unmet need. For example, when talking to local groups Mr Sceats discovered almost no-one in Porirua had prepared a will or an EPA. A survey of similar groups in Kapiti revealed more than 90% of attendees had prepared one or other or both. As a consequence, the law centre immediately applied for (and received) grants from the Lotteries Commission, COGs (Community Organisation Grants Scheme) and Trust House to employ an additional staff member dedicated to helping low income clients complete EPAs and wills. The law centre has a target of 400 EPAs, and they are hoping to meet that target by the end of the year.
The centre is unable to provide some specialist services such as ACC advocacy and while the lawyers will give information in contested family law matters they won’t act for either party. That is because the law centre aims to be a resource for all those who need to find out the relevant law. The new offices will provide a slightly bigger space with more interview rooms but given the level of unmet legal need Mike Sceats estimates he could easily employ an extra two or three full-time equivalent legal positions.
Mr Sceats says that the major disappointment for all staff is the inability to help those who are unable to afford a lawyer but who still do not qualify for free legal help. This group, often referred to as ‘the working poor’ earn a little more than the income test levels set by the Ministry of Justice. Sometimes the centre takes them on and maybe they will give the centre a donation afterwards – “This is a large growing group of people,” says Mr Sceats.
After two years of ‘saving their pennies’ Porirua Kapiti Community Law Centre found their new office. An architect assisted them at a discounted rate and they have furniture donated by the ministry and some “dog-eared items” from the old site. They also acknowledge community grants from the lotteries and COGS (Community Organisation Grants Scheme) and Trust House.
“We have saved hard for the $100,000 needed for the move. We will be running with a 1% margin of error – it is a risk, but it was time to make the jump. We want to remind everyone in our community of the great work we do and where they can find us. We were honoured that the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, Porirua Mayor Anita Taylor, Judges Hastings and Doyle, Taku Parai, Chair of Ngati Toa Rununga, Kaumatua from Ngati Toa and many others, were gathered on 18 November to cut the ribbon,” Mr Sceats says.