New Zealand Law Society - A pillar of the rule of law: Practising in our Public Defence Service

A pillar of the rule of law: Practising in our Public Defence Service

Since its inception in 2004, the Public Defence Service has become New Zealand’s largest criminal practice. Two young lawyers starting their careers with the PDS talk to LawTalk about why they think it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.

If you had said twenty years ago that the Public Defence Service (PDS) would become the biggest criminal litigation outfit in New Zealand, many people would have looked at you strangely. But that’s exactly what’s happened. Since its inception, the PDS has become New Zealand’s largest criminal law practice that provides a combination of collegiality and support, as well as career progression and variety that few legal careers can equal.

The PDS was set up in 2004 and now boasts over 150 criminal defence lawyers in 10 offices across New Zealand. Practitioners join both straight from law school and from other practices. For many, it’s a great opportunity to get stuck in to litigating and dealing with criminal law matters straight away.

“The opening of the PDS marks a new era in the delivery of legal aid services,” said then-Justice Minister Phil Goff.

“The real advantage that the PDS has is the ability to create in one office, a cohesive group of skilled professionals who can share knowledge, support one another and create a positive working environment.”

Has the PDS lived up to its lofty goals back in 2004? We decided to speak to some new practitioners who have made the unique jump into the Service, and find out what motivates them day-to-day.

For both Karlena Lawrence and Kaitlyn White, the PDS was a calling.

Kaitlyn White

“The PDS is the perfect place to join as a junior lawyer and I jumped at the opportunity,” said Kaitlyn.

“We have the benefit of working in a large office environment with colleagues with varying experience levels. I am trusted to manage my own files but have supervision available from my colleagues and supervisors. I also get the opportunity to junior on files. Training and development is also continually offered with in-office trainings and a range of webinars with speakers from New Zealand and abroad.”

“I wanted to join PDS because I always wanted to do criminal law when I finished University,” said Karlena, based in Dunedin.

“I started in a small commercial firm in Dunedin and was there for 10 months before making the shift to PDS. The PDS was really the only place that was hiring junior criminal lawyers in Dunedin, so when a job opportunity came up, I jumped on it as soon as I could.

“From working briefly in a small firm prior to working for PDS, I knew that my interests’ law outside the commercial sector and doing the same work, but in a bigger firm never appealed to me. From what I knew there were no bigger firms hiring criminal lawyers, I always enjoyed criminal law and PDS was just the place for that.”

But it wasn’t the most obvious career path. For both Karlena and Kaitlyn, joining the PDS wasn’t something they had been encouraged to do at university.

“When I was at university the only kind of advertising that I saw was in relation to the summer internship,” said Karlena.

Karlena Lawrence

Kaitlyn had a similar experience. “The PDS was not well known when I was at the University of Canterbury but I’m not sure if that was the experience elsewhere. I only heard of it through a friend doing an internship.”

But, as Karlena said, the PDS are trying to improve their outreach. “We are working towards being more involved in university and proving more advertising and advice to students about how to get involved with criminal law.”

“Our PDS stall at the University of Canterbury law careers expo last year was flooded with people wanting to chat,” said Kaitlyn. “There seems to be a real interest from students in PDS and what criminal law work involves.”

For Karlena, the opportunities that she has had with the PDS rival other experiences she has had in her other jobs. “The PDS really is the best training ground for young lawyers, you learn so much day to day. You get to work on and help with really interesting files that involve serious charges. This can be anything from researching cases to preparing matters for the upcoming trial.”

Kaitlyn has relished the small but significant wins across her case files, particularly those that keep people away from cycles of re-offending. “Wins include every successful discharge without conviction application or where I am able to convince Police to offer diversion to my clients. These clients are almost always young people. Many have faced significant adversity (beyond what we can imagine) during their life, slipped up and offended, and now there are significant consequences to their employment, mental health and other aspects of their life. Most often, these clients are able to get into counselling or complete a programme to address the underlying causes of their offending.

“Clients will call me up from prison to share important milestones. It might be that they got to vote in the election, that they got their Covid-19 vaccine, that they picked up a job at the prison or that they completed a programme. We are trusted with a lot of personal information.”

Kaitlyn pushed back on the predominant trope in the non-legal world about the role of defence counsel.

“Often when people (both in and out of the profession) find out what I do, they think my job is to get my clients “off” their charges. I’ve even had a few rude comments about it. This is not at all what we do.

“Our job is to represent our clients, as is their right to legal representation. More often than not, we are working to ensure the charges are at the appropriate level or to get the best sentencing outcome to ensure our clients get the help they need so they do not come back before the Court. Yes we do defend some matters to trial but it is not our job to get people off their charges.

“It is also really fulfilling to get to work with a range of agencies across the city who can support our clients. Whether that is Community Corrections, our alcohol and drug services, Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society, programme providers, counsellors or kaupapa Maori organisations, they are all doing great work to address the issues many face and to make our communities a better place.”

Is it all plain sailing? Like any job, starting somewhere new can be challenging and overwhelming – particularly when the criminal law is concerned. “Starting out is a huge adjustment to your life, it can be very overwhelming and a lot of the time you feel as though you know very little which can be very confronting,” says Karlena.

“The advice I would give new lawyers is to ride that wave, ask for help when you need it (older lawyers expect you to ask questions and they certainly don’t expect you to know everything). Every day you will learn something new about the law. Take the small wins, like when you are able to do something without asking for assistance. Most importantly take time for yourself at the end of every day/week to recharge.”

“Criminal law is the purest form of advocacy,” said Kaitlyn. “You will be appearing in Court almost every day (usually multiple times a day) and managing your own clients right from the beginning. It is an excellent role to take on to get court experience, develop advocacy and negotiation skills and generally to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.”

“Our work is tough, we deal with some difficult matters, but it is incredibly rewarding. It can be daunting taking on your own files but there is a lot of support. Soon it becomes second nature to walk into a client meeting and advise your client on a range of options for them and possible outcomes.”

Both appreciate the culture and network of support that exists at the Public Defence Service. As Kaitlyn said, “It is an extremely supportive environment and everyone is willing to lend a hand, chew over a tricky issue with you, celebrate the successes and commiserate on the losses.

The PDS really is the best training ground for young lawyers, you learn so much day to day. You get to work on and help with really interesting files that involve serious charges

“You will be working with a number of people at the same level of experience as you, as well as more experienced lawyers who remember what it was like when they just started! The Christchurch criminal bar has also been really supportive, always willing to whisper something in your ear to help you during a court appearance if you get stuck.”

“The benefits for starting at the PDS is that you get so much training and have access to so many helpful materials and guidance from other lawyers. You definitely feel like you are supported every step of the way,” said Karlena.

“If you are interested in criminal law and have the opportunity to work with the PDS definitely take up that opportunity. It is one you won’t regret.”