Helping people in need is a driving motivation for legal aid lawyer Panama Le’au’anae, still practising at 65. Panama shares his experience and vision of what could be improved to achieve greater access to justice for the Pasifika community.
Access to justice is a significant driver for Pacific law students to go into practice. For these students, law is a vocation: they have a moral duty to serve their community.
Pacific lawyers recognise that from time to time, members of the Pacific community have difficulties participating in what can be an overwhelming process and an unfamiliar system.
With that in mind, the Pacific Lawyers Association considers the findings of the Law Society’s Access to Justice survey more concerning than surprising.
“Meaningful participation in the justice process requires access to a lawyer, but more than that, access to advice that serves to help parties untangle and ultimately understand complex legal processes” says Co-President Ataga’i Esera
“Yet Pacific lawyers undertaking Legal Aid work, together with Māori practitioners and lawyers in Treaty of Waitangi work, bear the brunt of strain in a Legal Aid system that is near collapse. Together, we carry the heaviest burden of Legal Aid service. There is increasing demand, greater stress, and inadequate remuneration,” says Co-President Joseph Xulue.
The Pacific Lawyers Association were unsurprised that Pacific lawyers who took the survey rated helping those who could not afford legal assistance as an “extremely important” reason for providing Legal Aid (54%: the national average was 40%).
Life as a Legal Aid lawyer in South Auckland
Wanting to help his people is a driving motivation for South Auckland based Barrister Panama Le’au’anae, still practising at 65.
“Very early on in my life I decided I’d like to do work that helped my people. Both my parents were migrants to Aotearoa from Samoa. As a people we have a strong Christian background which motivates us to help those in need.
“I see many people coming from the Pacific Islands with English as a second language, struggling to understand the nuances of New Zealand society.”
Panama has spent his life working mainly in the areas of family and criminal law. He sees communication as a critical issue for many people going through the justice system. English is typically a second language. Defendants from Pasifika backgrounds often need considerable care and diligence to ensure they properly access justice. It requires enormous effort to ensure they can navigate a system which is alien.
Countless hours of discussion are spent, not just with the defendant but also with their aiga (extended family). This can be in person at offices, their place of residence as well as on the phone, ensuring they fully comprehend the process. This investment of time often results in better engagement and better outcomes for clients.
Making it work as a legal aid lawyer
The survey found that Legal Aid lawyers who identify as Pacific peoples work 54 hours per week on Legal Aid matters, compared with 47 hours for all lawyers. That comes as no surprise to the Pacific Lawyers Association or Panama.
Panama regularly works extended hours, helping the defendant and their aiga through the process. The inclusion of aiga is an integral part of a defendant’s active involvement in their personal case. In addition, Panama spends much time outside business hours to ensure he can engage in these discussions – most of the time is not claimable. It remains uncompensated in the fixed fee world of legal aid.
The client-lawyer relationship even extends to Panama providing financial assistance for defendants’ food and transport costs to enable them attend meetings and participate actively. Sometimes he personally drives clients home after Court appearances. This places pressure on him.
“I would never stop doing legal aid but I have had to streamline my processes and be careful which cases I take on, which has meant that largely I have had to walk away from the PAL 1 and 2 work”, he says.
“However, I struggle to turn away a Samoan or a PI person wanting my representation in a PAL 1 or 2 assignment. These are opportunities to give something back to my community.”
Supporting the next generation of Pasifika lawyers
When Panama started out in the legal profession there were very few fellow Samoan lawyers. Four decades on, he still hasn’t seen the number of Samoan or Pasifika lawyers he would like. This is particularly true in the legal aid space.
“I am concerned about the next generation coming through, most of the lawyers left in the legal aid space are old guys like me. I don’t see too many young lawyers coming in,” he says.
“Those we do have we’re losing to other areas of the law. They’re going into government departments or Commission work. It pays so much better, and brings with it better working conditions, so greater wellbeing.
“Over the past 40 years it has become increasingly difficult to progress junior Pasifika counsel given the hurdles. Obtaining funding for junior lawyers to assist in trials is a significant barrier. It’s acutely felt by the Pasifika lawyer community, given the low numbers of Pasifika lawyers reported to remain in practice.”
What needs to change
“I’ve seen some incredible acts of forgiveness when the parties involved are Pasifika – sometimes even for the most serious of crimes. It is part of our culture to offer forgiveness, to seek an outcome that’s not as punitive as the justice system here seeks.
“In 2018, Sir Peter Gluckmann called for alternative justice processes to ensure greater access to justice. The Chief District Court Judge is pursuing a Te Ao Mārama model of justice which is still being developed. The spotlight could also be on Pasifika culture and views of alternative justice, which could be incorporated and developed. For that to happen, there needs to be more dialogue. I’d welcome being a part of it.
I struggle to turn away a Samoan or a PI person wanting my representation in a PAL 1 or 2 assignment. These are opportunities to give something back to my community.
“Pasifika people are reported as being the lowest wage earners in Aotearoa. They’re also the highest users of legal aid and the most vulnerable in gaining proper access to justice.
“Pasifika defendants tend to come from multi-generational homes with one income earner, who often works graveyard shifts. It is frequently apparent there’s nothing left in the kitty to set aside for legal costs.
“These defendants must protect their livelihoods, and not jeopardise their work. Convictions and disqualifications can have a disproportionately severe impact on them. Sadly, these people don’t manage to obtain discharges without conviction. That is of concern.
“The same defendants often either fail to receive legal aid assistance because of eligibility, or are required to repay costs. This is simply too onerous.
“Better scrutiny of eligibility criteria and thresholds for legal aid applications and grants is needed. It’s also vital some assistance is provided to junior counsel, to allow them to participate in trials and progress in the profession. A review of the fixed fee system is way overdue so that access to justice is available to all. That is the mark of a truly democratic and caring society.”
Co-President Joseph Xulue says, “If the current situation continues, the findings of the Law Society’s survey suggest that ultimately we may see justice that is inaccessible. The government needs to consider what access to justice means, and more importantly how they can give effect to this fundamental human right, that all under the law may equal before the law and access justice.”