New Zealand Law Society - Change, Optimism and Persistence

Change, Optimism and Persistence

Change, Optimism and Persistence
Tiana Epati being interviewed by TVNZ on our Access to Justice survey

Law Society President Tiana Epati reflects on the year that has been. She describes the challenges of COVID-19 lockdowns, and this year’s milestones including electing a new President Jacqueline Lethbridge, and the completion of the research into access to justice in Aotearoa. Her column includes a quick summary of proposed changes to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.

Tēnā tatou katoa,

This is the last LawTalk of the year. It comes after a hard year for many of the legal profession, particularly in Auckland, the Waikato and Northland, as we faced Delta head on, often through various forms of lockdown.

Let us all look forward in the hope that the New Year brings an easier journey, especially as Aotearoa New Zealand ‘opens up’ again.

Election of New President

On 15 October, a new President was elected. She is Jacqueline Lethbridge (Jacque), and she’ll take up her role as the Law Society’s 32nd President in April. Jacque practises in commercial and civil litigation, heading the team in litigation at Martelli McKegg in Auckland. Previously Vice President for Auckland on the New Zealand Law Society Board, Jacque has represented a wide range of clients across demanding litigation – including the recently successful landmark challenge against the nation’s MIQ system. She is a passionate advocate for positive change, and I welcome her to the role.

Access to Justice – Campaigning for Improved Legal Aid

The media, public and lawyers seized upon our advocacy for a better system of legal aid, as we launched the results of our Colmar Brunton-commissioned survey. There was widespread coverage, much of which supported the position the Law Society was taking to promote greater equity and much-needed change.

You can read about this survey in this edition of LawTalk. In essence, the survey showed that access to justice, includes access to lawyers – and that’s failing. It said:

  • legal aid is vastly overstretched: 20,000 clients have been turned away by legal aid lawyers in twelve months (while at the same time over 80% of the entire legal profession gave legal assistance for free – suggesting pro bono is not the answer)
  • on average legal aid lawyers were paid for only half their time on the last legal aid file; and
  • a quarter of legal aid lawyers plan to quit the legal aid system or reduce work

The survey achieved a target. We have the attention of the Minister who has publicly said he is concerned about the results of the survey. Our work is not over until Government agrees to invest in legal aid and look to future reform. Only then will access to justice be realised.

An Important Consultation in January: Rule Changes for Transparency

In the minds of ordinary people, trust and confidence rest upon the ability to assure the public matters of concern are being looked in to appropriately.

One of the keenest insights of the 2018 Cartwright Report, in the wake of bitter criticisms of the profession, was that the Law Society could not confirm we had received a complaint. This statutory restraint on information included the Law Society being unable to provide assurances that serious complaints, involving high public interest, were being considered and being able to talk openly to affected parties who may not wish to be complainants.

The constraints of our Legislation, said the Cartwright report, contributed to “concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability’.

My strong belief is this: prejudice and poor behaviour are extremely difficult to skewer while they remain hidden

In the 21st century, it’s clear that to continue to enjoy the benefits of our profession’s leadership in society, the Law Society’s complaints system must be more transparent. This requires changes to Rule 188, Disclosure of Information.

We have approached the Minister about the changes we might need. We also asked for tandem amendments to allow for the triaging of frivolous and vexatious complaints to improve efficiency and support the sustainability of the complaints service. He has agreed to us consulting with the profession on these proposed changes.

In January 2022, therefore, we will begin this consultation.

The changes we will put to you will be careful, considered and principled. We will be advocating to improve efficiency, and at the same time for better transparency.

We will articulate in consultation a system:

  • Of triaging complaints, so that trivial complaints are moved aside earlier (and do not occupy the time of Standards Committees);
  • That seeks to recognise frivolous or tactical complaints at inception, and dispenses with them; and
  • Where it is in the public interest to do so, will confirm receipt of a complaint.

As a member of the Law Society, you will be invited to participate in this consultation.

My strong belief is this: prejudice and poor behaviour are extremely difficult to skewer while they remain hidden. There’s a force in allowing sunlight in – with care and consistency – to change our profession for the good.

Best Wishes for the Holiday Season

The year is almost gone. I wish you and your whānau the very best for Christmas and the holiday season, and hope to welcome you back in the New Year, refreshed and ready to take on 2022.

Ngā manaakitanga,

Tiana Epati

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