New Zealand Law Society - Pro bono clearing house. It may make a difference, but is it the answer?

Pro bono clearing house. It may make a difference, but is it the answer?

By Craig Stephen

Money allocated for a new pro bono clearing house will make a ‘big difference’ to those in need of support, says Community Law Centres Aotearoa.

But a barrister has warned that it does not ‘address the fundamental problem’ of access to justice.

The 2020 Budget has allocated $7.7 million over four years to the law centres to help meet growing demand for services and enable management of cases.

As well as establishing the clearing house the funding boost will fund a new case management system across the 24 community law centres, and improve pay so that CLC can recruit and retain staff.

“It may be a small amount of money in a government budget which features such substantial expenditure, but it will make a big difference for those in need of support,” says Community Law Centres chief executive Sue Moroney.

“All of these initiatives will improve Community Law’s ability to improve access to justice for those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal support.”

Unmet legal needs

Christchurch barrister Craig Ruane says while the money allocated in the Budget is welcome, he does not believe it addresses the fundamental problem.

“There is a significant unmet legal need in this country, particularly in the civil and family area. Enabling lawyers to do work for free, by facilitating the distribution of pro bono work, papers over the cracks and ignores the problem.

Sue Moroney

“There seems to be an assumption, not only by this government but by previous governments, that lawyers should give their expertise for nothing. The fact of the matter is that any lawyer who picks up a legal aid file is already sacrificing about 75% of what they could otherwise charge, and would happily be charged by the large firms in the major centres.

“For example, I have just prepared a legal aid bill for a relatively complex matter which involved serious charges, several bail applications, two pre-trial applications, and was eventually resolved with my client pleading guilty to several lesser charges and receiving a community-based sentence. On this file I am recovering about 10% of what would otherwise be a commercial fee.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to find lawyers who are prepared to do civil legal aid work because of the sheer administrative embuggerance involved in dealing with legal aid, and the inadequacy of the fees available. It is all just too hard.”

Drive to see justice done

Writing for the Law Society’s LawPoints newsletter 508, Portia CEO/Kaiwhakahaere Jarrod Coburn said at the forefront of the idea is improving access to justice.

“The clearing house model is – on the face of it – an initiative that will improve the situation,” he said.

Craig Ruane

“The affluent middle-classes who are affected through loss of one or more income, reduced incomes, pressure to reduce overheads (such as private schooling, health insurance, lawyers), will benefit from the pro bono clearing house concept. They will join a burgeoning cohort who find lawyers financially inaccessible; often ending up as self-litigants.

“The people most at need at this time are those who currently fall outside of the legal aid eligibility framework, but who cannot afford to pay lawyers privately. This is a key reason why the pro bono clearing house is good news for access to justice.

“It will not diminish the pool of private clients, though some firms might feel animosity toward the scheme as the economic situation becomes more dire. But in these turbulent times, the decency of lawyers and their drive to see justice done will contribute appreciably to the good of society.”

‘Increase access to free legal assistance’

The New Zealand Bar Association says the clearing house move is “a significant milestone for access to justice” but it also believes that it needs to be a part of the wider access for justice developments and not a replacement for legal aid.

“The pro-bono clearing house will increase access to free legal assistance and support people who cannot afford a lawyer by matching them with lawyers who are offering their services for free,” it says.

“We now can follow the lead of other Commonwealth countries, who already have similar schemes operating.

“The need for this is likely to be even greater and more urgent in the next 12 months, given the impact of COVID-19 on employment, housing, debt, family, immigration, mental health and a range of other social issues.

“These matters will all inevitably overlap with legal issues and many will not be able to afford legal advice or will struggle to meet legal aid criteria.

“While we are very pleased to see this development, we caution that this must not be seen as a substitute for a fully-funded legal aid system.”

The New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa similarly welcomes the additional funding for Community Law Centres to establish the clearing house.

“This initiative is most certainly a positive step in addressing the access to justice gap. The Law Society has been actively involved in supporting this initiative and we look forward to working with the Bar Association and the Community Law Centre to get the clearing house up and running,” Law Society President Tiana Epati says.

In addition, the Budget has set aside $163.5 million over the next four years for upgrading court buildings to improve the experience of attending court, including for victims, participants and employees. It will enable investment in eight of the country’s top ten busiest court locations, which require urgent attention to address critical health and safety issues and seismic strengthening work.

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