Next month’s election comes at a critical time for the legal profession and for the Law Society. As many of you will already know, the Independent Review recommended legislative and structural change, the establishment of a new independent regulator and an overhaul of the system for handling complaints about lawyers.
The Review was commissioned by the Law Society in 2021 because it had been clear that the complaints process was no longer fit-for-purpose and was not serving the public or the profession well. This had been highlighted in 2018 with reports of sexual harassment within the legal profession.
It is fair to say the views of the profession are not unanimous. On each of the Independent Review Panel’s recommendations, views from the profession range from accept to reject. However, most of the recommendations have either been accepted or accepted in principle by the Law Society. There are some recommendations that the Law Society considers require further consideration. No recommendations have been rejected by the Law Society.
During all stages of the Independent Review there was considerable opportunity for the profession to engage, and a range of views expressed and considered. To ensure the response was transparent, the Law Society published the Council responses for each recommendation, and also the indicative support from the profession.
If new draft legislation eventuates, there will be further opportunities for the Law Society and individual lawyers to comment on the Bill through standard policy and legislative development processes.
It’s unclear as to what priority the incoming government will place on this. We at the Law Society have made our position clear – and we’re focussed on the future of the profession. A more modern regulatory environment is needed given the changes that have taken place in New Zealand and internationally since the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act was introduced in 2006.
In the meantime, we have made considerable progress in line with the Review Panel’s conclusions. We’re moving forward on a number of actions that are aligned with the recommendations. A new regulatory strategy is in place and this has been a significant step forward on our transformation journey to modernise the Law Society’s regulatory functions and ensure our services are responsive.
We are also working on our future strategy as a membership body. The Law Society is responding to the profession’s call to be an even stronger voice as a national representative body by working on our representative strategy. The Law Society provides extensive geographical support through 13 branches across the motu, from Tāmaki Makaurau right down to Southland. We offer support for three practice areas through the Inhouse Lawyers, Property Law and Family Law sections, and these are highly valued by the profession. Our new strategy aims to build on this and provide even more value for members, all the while ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of the Law Society’s representative services.
Our representative strategy will be discussed at our October Council meeting. The Law Society is intending to introduce a membership subscription in 2024 to support the delivery of these services.
One thing is clear though, our representative function is vital. It is valued by members and plays a critical role in supporting us to deliver our purpose as a kaitiaki of an exemplary legal profession. I encourage you to take advantage of the many services your Law Society already offers.
As our recent advocacy supporting lawyer wellbeing and duty lawyer remuneration demonstrates, the Law Society is a strong voice that other organisations reach out to, listen to, and collaborate with. We believe it vital that the Law Society retain a strong representative function and act as an advocate for principles such as access to justice.
An example of success through advocacy, which we often undertake in collaboration with other organisations, was the significant announcement in July by the Legal Aid Services Commissioner that duty lawyers across Aotearoa will receive a 17 per cent pay rise.
Duty lawyers provide a key element in the operation of district courts and improve access to justice. Earlier this year I wrote on behalf of the Law Society to the Minister of Justice outlining our concern that duty lawyer work had become unsustainable, posing risk to defendants, and the justice system.
It is the Legal Aid Services Commissioner’s intention that this pay increase will help to ensure unrepresented defendants can continue to access legal assistance and duty lawyers can afford to keep providing their service. However, there is more work that is needed, and we welcome the broad scope review into the duty lawyer scheme taking place between August this year and February 2024.
Concerns over growing workloads, stress and mental health among lawyers in New Zealand has also come into sharp focus recently. The rise in the number of self-represented litigants is adding to the pressures on lawyers in the Family Courts, and I encourage any lawyers who need support to use the Law Society’s support services, or join the Family Law Section (FLS) for a specialist community of practice and local FLS reps.
The Law Society has collected information around the extent of the issue within the profession, in particular those appearing in the courts. Following on from our regular stakeholder meeting with the judiciary in July and other separate meetings to discuss our concerns, the Chief High Court Judge Justice Susan Thomas and Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu sent a letter outlining concern over the issue to High Court Judges and Associate Judges, all District Court Judges, Acting Warranted Judges, Community Magistrates and Judicial Justices of the Peace.
Counsel across the motu are under immense workload pressure, and I’m hearing that many are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and worried about the impact of this on their clients. I am very appreciative of the Chief High Court Judge and Chief District Court Judge, for stepping up and addressing the pressures currently facing lawyers. Now there is a shared focus, we look forward to participating in future meetings and canvassing potential solutions.
In the meantime, don’t forget to take advantage of the Law Society’s Practising Well initiatives, which include free counselling, the Friends panel, and various wellbeing sessions that are on offer.
Wellbeing is critically important and along with our Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch, I have had the great pleasure of being able to travel around Aotearoa to many of the Law Society’s local branches in recent months to speak with lawyers and find out what’s happening at grass roots level. It’s hugely informative and I’m deeply grateful for all the hard work that continues.