New Zealand Law Society - An update from the Independent Review

An update from the Independent Review

Independent Review Chair Ron Paterson gives the profession an update on some of the earlier indicators of the success of the Independent Review’s consultation on changes to the Law Society and legal profession.

The Independent Review of the framework for the regulation and representation of lawyers in Aotearoa New Zealand has entered a new phase now that the formal consultation period has ended.

The Review Panel has spent the past three months engaging with stakeholders over the issues canvassed in the discussion document – topics that go to the heart of how lawyers practise and are regulated.

Good levels of engagement

“We’re pleased with the levels of engagement we’ve had so far. We’ve received plenty of thoughtful submissions, which we’re now working our way through,” Panel Chair, Ron Paterson says.

“The key to the success of this review has always been to get the widest possible engagement from the legal profession – and we’re confident we’ve achieved that.”

The consultation process to date has included:

  • 1,835 individual survey responses, many of which have made extensive submissions on the issues raised in the discussion document;
  • 157 written submissions so far, including several on behalf of large representative groups of lawyers;
  • three webinars and five events held by the Panel through Law Society branches for lawyers to attend to engage with the Panel, which were attended by 375 people;
  • 38 meetings held by the Panel with stakeholders with stakeholders over the consultation period, including representative groups for lawyers, consumer groups, public sector bodies, and individual lawyers; and
  • the Panel has also met with legal services regulators from England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and Australia.

“While the formal consultation process may have ended, our engagement is still underway at pace,” says Ron Paterson.

“Over the next month we will continue to canvas the issues raised in the discussion document, including hosting several focus groups and meeting with policy makers. We’re determined to ensure that the views of the profession and consumers are adequately captured.”

Several important issues to the forefront

While it is too early to provide insights into the themes from submissions, it has been clear from the Panel’s engagement that there are several issues on which members of the profession typically hold strongly, and often diverging, views.

The question of an independent regulator

One of the central issues facing the review is whether the Law Society should continue to exercise both regulatory and representative functions, or whether there is a case for establishing a regulator with a greater degree of independence from the profession.

“We’re hearing strong views on both sides of this issue,” says Panel member, Jane Meares.

“Many in the profession believe that self-regulation is an integral part of having a cohesive and collegial profession, that lawyers are best placed to develop regulatory standards, and that requiring the regulator to be governed by lay members could undermine the ability of the profession to act as a check on the Executive.”

We’re pleased with the levels of engagement we’ve had so far... The key to the success of this review has always been to get the widest possible engagement from the legal profession – and we’re confident we’ve achieved that

“There have been equally strong views expressed to us that the current arrangements are not working as well as they could – that there is an inherent conflict in the Law Society managing competing organisational objectives and that the regulation and representation of the profession could be done more effectively by two separate bodies.”

Promoting a positive and supportive culture

“The topic in our discussion document that appears to have generated the strongest response has been the steps that can be taken to improve both the culture of the legal profession and the health and wellbeing of lawyers,” says Panel member, Jacinta Ruru.

“Many individuals have provided us with incredibly personal stories of the challenges they’ve faced within the workplace. We’ve also heard from people who have encountered challenges trying to practise on their own account and who describe the current arrangements as creating significant barriers for those looking to do contracting or re-enter the workforce on a part-time basis.”

Complaints and discipline

Lawyers at the Panel events have recounted their own experience of the complaints handling system, with many commenting that the biggest problem is the amount of time it takes for even minor complaints to be resolved. The current delays appear to be contributing to stress and mental health issues for some lawyers.

“An effective complaints system must be responsive. We’ve heard that the current model is slow and inflexible, and is not meeting the needs of lawyers or consumers,” says Jane Meares.

“As the discussion document noted, many of the current problems are due to the prescriptive nature of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 on how complaints must be handled. The Panel is focused on identifying areas where improvements can be made, including examining models used overseas and in other professions.”

The role of Te Tiriti within the profession

Another issue that often comes up in our discussions with the profession is whether the legislative framework should make reference to the bicultural foundations of Aotearoa New Zealand – and, if so, what those references should be.

“The discussion document sought views on whether there was a case to make reference to matters such as Te Tiriti in the purpose statement of the Act (s 3), the fundamental obligations on individual lawyers (s 4), and whether any objectives of the regulator should refer to matters such as the relevance of tikanga in the law and te reo,” says Jacinta Ruru.

“We’ve received many thoughtful submissions on these points, which we’re looking forward to considering in more detail.”

Next steps

The Panel will spend the next three months reading submissions, deliberating, and drafting its final report says Ron Paterson.

“We’re grateful for the considerable time and effort that so many in the profession have put into engaging with this review.

“We have a challenging task ahead of us, but we’re committed to producing a high-quality report and set of recommendations that will set a pathway for regulation of lawyers into the future.”

The Panel is due to provide its final report to the Board of the Law Society by the end of the year.