New Zealand Law Society - Why lawyers in larger law firms should consider specialising in ACC law

Why lawyers in larger law firms should consider specialising in ACC law

In New Zealand’s larger law firms, ACC law usually doesn’t feature as a significant area of practice. However, ACC law can be a very rewarding area for lawyers in larger law firms to specialise in, whether acting for claimants or employers.

This article considers the drawcards of ACC law in general and why this area of legal speciality might be particularly appealing to larger law firms.

What are the main drawcards of ACC law work?

New Zealand’s “no-fault no-liability” accident compensation system is a unique, fair and sustainable scheme for managing the personal injuries of people in New Zealand. Its purpose is to enhance the public good and be a social contract, minimising the impact of personal injuries on the community (including economic, social and personal costs).

The accident compensation system generally treats people in New Zealand the same, by fully funding the lifetime costs of an accepted injury claim wherever and whenever it occurs in New Zealand. The system focuses on achieving a proper quality of life for injured people in New Zealand by restoring their health, independence and participation in society by providing a range of entitlements.

The accident compensation system successfully tries to eliminate health care injustices in New Zealand. This is especially noticeable when looking at the health systems of countries such as America, where the cost of health care is very expensive, creating significant health inequalities in their society and leading to complex litigation.

So, while the introduction of the ACC regime into the New Zealand legal system effectively removed most of the previously lucrative personal injury jurisdiction, it has been replaced with a unique and equitable way to care for a vulnerable section of society. For lawyers practicing in this area, to assist either a claimant or an employer to ensure that the system is applied correctly, can be rewarding.

Whether acting for claimants who have a genuine claim for entitlement under the ACC legislation, or accredited employers who face disingenuous claims from an employee, an ACC lawyer can add real value to the process when dealing with ACC, as the sole regulator of the regime, through negotiations or dispute resolution.

ACC work can be a fascinating area of law, in terms of the complexities of medical evidence that is often required in order for a claim to be assessed by ACC. As a lawyer involved in ACC work, you will read opinions and assessments from an extensive range of medical specialists, often competing and requiring careful analysis.

In New Zealand, there are currently few lawyers doing ACC law work. Therefore, it can be considered to be quite a niche area of law, and this makes this specialist area attractive as you will be part of a small pool of practitioners.

Why is ACC law particularly appealing for larger firms?

ACC law usually forms part of a workplace law offering, and it can be a good addition to an employment law team in a larger firm. This enables the employment law team to offer a more complete service to employer client, especially those who are accredited employers.

For employer clients, there are a number of ways that an ACC law specialist can enhance the employment law offering:

  • For an accredited employer client, which has a dispute about ACC levies, in terms of whether they have been correctly assessed.
  • An employer who faces a personal grievance from an ex-employee, who is on ACC at the time of dismissal, as this applies to remedies.
  • An employer who has been over charged or who has not paid the correct ACC levies and enters into dispute with ACC.
  • An employer who has multiple ACC levy classifications, and how to best structure its organisation to minimise costs.

Having ACC law expertise in your employment law team enables larger firms to not only ensure their employer clients get the right advice, but also adds valve to your service to clients by considering the impact of ACC on an employment law issue.

It is also possible for large firms to take on pro bono work acting for individual claimants. The claim process for accident compensation and potential subsequent dispute resolution processes can often be a very confusing and distressing experience for many people. Therefore, ACC pro bono work can be rewarding for lawyers in large firms to be involved with.

In addition, ACC work can be a good way to get dispute resolution experience. Firstly, through mediation or facilitation with ACC. But if these processes do not resolve matters, then through the independent formal review process. This is a legal process where ACC’s decisions are independently reviewed, and involves the preparation of evidence, including expert evidence from medical specialists, presenting legal submissions and appearing at a review hearing.

Review decisions can be appealed to the Accident Compensation Appeals District Court and beyond. Such appeals can involve complex disputes, with an emphasis on evidence of causation and testimony from competing medical specialists. You often see ACC disputes appealed through to the High Court and sometimes the Court of Appeal, so good litigation experience can be gained by practicing in this area.

Whether you wish to act for claimants, employers or both, ACC law is an interesting and rewarding area to become involved in. For larger law firms, offering this area of specialist advice can enhance an employment law teams services to employer clients by providing a more complete offering.

This article was originally published in a booklet prepared for the NZLS CLE Webinar ACC Fundamentals held on 10 March 2021.

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