New Zealand Law Society - Community Law: Where the rubber meets the road

Community Law: Where the rubber meets the road

Community Law: Where the rubber meets the road

Providing legal advice and services to our most vulnerable is what Community Law Centres Aotearoa CEO, Sue Moroney, describes as being “where the rubber meets the road.” LawTalk profiles the important mahi being done in this space and shares a first-hand account from a volunteer and a lawyer working in community law.

Community Law Centres Aotearoa, (CLCA) Chief Executive Sue Moroney says, “Lawyers working either on a paid or voluntary basis in the community law sector often do so as for many it resonates with the reason they embarked on a legal career; and that is to make a difference.”

With a network of 24 centres across the motu, the Community Law network claims the position as New Zealand’s largest law firm and for those who work in it, arguably the most important too.

Sue Moroney, Community Law Centres Aotearoa Chief Executive

Funded by the Special Fund through the Ministry of Justice, Community Law Centres deliver free legal advice to our most vulnerable communities that includes the lowest 20 percentile income earners in Aotearoa. Sue says for the vast majority of their clients the Community Law Centre offers the only avenue for access to justice, that whilst a right for all, is a right that is out of reach for the people seen in Community Law Centres.

With a national body that has been formed as an incorporated society, the work of CLCA extends beyond the coal face of working in communities to advocating for our most vulnerable people which Sue describes as a privelege that carries a “special responsibility.” This important advocacy work also includes being a strong voice in the law reform space. Two recent examples of this have included advocating for victims of family violence in exiting tenancies safely and quickly which resulted in changes to the Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2020. Recent work has also included convincing the Ministry of Social Development to develop standards for emergency housing in an effort to improve living conditions. The immigration space is another area that community law has advocated in, particularly during the COVID-19 period in remedying the unlawful cessation of family reunification visas.

Community Law is where the “rubber meets the road,” and works to protect the most vulnerable in our society,” says Sue.

New Zealand’s largest law firm

Five areas of law stand out as being the most in demand at community law centres: employment, family – including care of children – tenancy, immigration and consumer. Work is also undertaken to facilitate the witnessing of documents, advice and referral on criminal matters and advising on adult relationships.

“Across all areas of work, Community Law is in growth mode which enables us to continually improve access to justice for our most vulnerable.” says Sue, adding that even in growth mode, there is always an “ambition to do more.” This extends to advocating for the lawyers who work in community law. Following 18 months' work to improve the salaries of our lawyers, “we proudly delivered the first multi-employer collective agreement for our staff,” says Sue.

Improved salaries together with a flexible, whānau-friendly work enviornment hope to encourage more lawyers to consider a career in community law.

Of the 240 employees of Community Law throughout the country, around half are lawyers. This team is supported by around 1200 volunteers who serve our communities from 24 dedicated centres. If the numbers are startling, it is because this is a large scale organisation or as Sue says, “New Zealand’s largest law firm and in our view, the most important law firm in the country!”

The kaupapa of community law

Community Law is building on its experiences of delivering kaupapa Māori legal services throughout the country. A three-year pilot is underway that aims to establish kaupapa Māori services across 15 centres with the view to improving access to justice for Māori. As a Treaty-based organisation, Community Law Centres Aotearoa holds a special responsibility to tangata whenua who currently make up around 18 percent of Community Law Centres Aotearoa client base and who also over-represent the lowest 20 percent of income earners.

In developing this kaupapa, Community Law Centres Aotearoa has undergone constitutional change which was agreed at the organisations’ Annual General Meeting in 2023. From 1 July 2024, Community Law Centres Aotearoa will be co-governed through a 50 percent representation of tangata whenua on the CLCA Board, including the establishment of a Tangata Whenua caucus and a Tangata Tiriti caucus.

Sue says the move represents a “significant growth journey for Community Law and is one that the organisation hopes will serve to attract more Māori lawyers into the community law space.”

A growth trajectory that reflects a kaupapa Māori approach together with people who are passionate about their purpose in this area of law is a vision that Sue says is shared throughout the community of volunteers and lawyers who deliver this important service.

A lawyer’s journey – from Kaawhia to community law

by Marree Kereru (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Raukawa)

Born and raised in the small coastal township of Kaawhia in the heart of the King Country on the West Coast of the North Island, Marree Kereru took her first step toward a legal career at just seven years of age when she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a lawyer. This also set the course for Marree to become the first of her whaanau to attend university. Her mother took on the youngster's challenge, pushing her hard with school studies; effort was rewarded with academic certificates throughout Marree’s early education.

Early inspiration

One of six siblings, Marree credits her koro (grandfather) Tata Keepa as being an early inspiration to dare her younger self to dream big. “My koro took me along to many hui including land hui where I would quietly listen in on sacred kōrero and even at a young age, I could also hear a lot of hurt in the kōrero of these hui.”

“While I may have just looked like the young girl busy with her drawings, my attendance left an indelible mark and galvanised my determination to pursue a legal career to further the ambition of Maaori.”

The road to Dunedin via Napier

A short stint at local Ōtorohanga College was followed by a major move away from home and whaanau to board at St Joseph’s Maaori Girls’ College in Napier.

Under the guidance of college principal, Ms Georgina Kingi, Marree recalls submitting her end of college application for scholarships for futher education to hospitality school. This reflected a stark realisation that perhaps university was beyond Marree’s means. But seeing a potential that could and should find a way, principal Kingi tore up the application telling Marree to return with a “double degree application.”

Scholarships were duly submitted for Otago University, but financial shortfalls presented a major hurdle still to be overcome. “My mother was so determined to make this dream a reality, she did whatever she could to pull together the money for me to go. Even getting the petrol money together was a mission. I know Mum and Dad went without kai themselves, instead making kai and selling it at local markets to support my education.”

Embarking on a conjoint LLB/BCom, Marree found Otago an isolating experience as one of only a few Maaori law students. A degree change to LLB / BA saw Marree immersing herself in a double major that included Te Reo Maaori and Tikanga with a minor in Environmental Law.

Returning to be closer to whaanau, Marree completed her degree and graduated in 2015 with First-Class Honours from the University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato. At Waikato, Marree credits her “staunch” Maaori lecturers; Matiu Dickson, Linda Te Aho and Dr Robert Joseph as really pushing their Maaori students.

The Maaori Land Court

Marree Kereru (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Raukawa)

On completion of her ‘Profs,’ Marree worked as a clerk in the Maaori Land Court for two years in Christchurch. During this time she was introduced to Community Law as a volunteer. From Christchurch Marree transferred with the Maaori Land Court to Hastings in the Hawkes Bay. In this transition, Marree credits the generous mentoring of Justices Reeves and Harvey in encouraging her to expand her legal career. With this came Marree’s admittance to the bar in the Hamilton High Court in 2017; a ceremony that Marree describes as being very emotional and supported with haka and karakia.

Gisborne bound

Now officially a lawyer, Marree joined Gisborne firm, Woodward Chrisp where she could put to good use her experience in the workings of the Maaori Land Court. At Woodward Chrisp, Marree applied herself to the craft of writing good legal opinions and assisting in a wide range of matters. Here, Marree credits Ross Revington and Partner, Ellie FitzGerald as being excellent mentors in this stage of her career.

From private practice Marree saw the need and challenges of Maaori, many of whom did not have the means to pursue their legal matters, particularly in the area of Maaori land. “For some of our Maaori whaanau just navigating forms is a challenge, let alone mounting a legal campaign. For some it was as simple as Nanny coming to ask how to write a will, but even then relatively modest fees became a barrier to completing such requests.”

A calling to community law

Seeing this need was to see a community need and led Marree back to Community Law. At the Tairaawhiti Community Law Centre, Marree found her calling, this time as a fully-fledged lawyer leading the Maaori Legal team. Here Marree was able to work in a way that aligned with Te Ao Maaori and her personal values and worked with mana whenua, hapuu and iwi from Raupunga to Potaka. It was huge for many to just take that first step and come in to ask for help. For Marree, the opportunity to advise and help her Community Law clients for free was the reward. This also offered an opportunity to impart the law in a more holistic way that could also accommodate the obligations that come with being a Maaori lawyer to law and tikanga. In many cases this meant litigation really was a last resort with early resolution and mediation the preferred and often more appropriate course of action.

The Community Law experience also enabled Marree to guide Maaori through community-led initiatives such as ‘kaumatua day’ which saw up to 190 kaumatua attending marae-based educational sessions on topics such as Maaori land, wills and enduring powers of attorney. “The opportunity to empower whaanau through legal education sessions and talk about their rights is gold,” says Marree.

To this end Marree considers it “a privilege to advise whaanau for free and that privilege is not ever lost on me.”

In the wake of a successful few years of practising law and honing in on her experience, Marree was able to use her skills to secure funding from Te Puni Kookiri. This enabled her and her family to establish a nine-house Papakaainga development on her whaanau land at Tahaaroa. “Being able to use my legal skills to help my whaanau move home to their turangawaewae will always be the pinnacle of my career.”

Marree also talks fondly of Maaori Caucus which she co-chairs alongside Stacey O’Neill (Ngā Puhi). Maaori Caucus was created by Maaori for Maaori with the intention of providing a safe and supportive network for Maaori staff and governance members within Community Law. For Marree, it has served as a pillar of support for her during her time with Community Law with the Maaori Caucus annual hui a highlight she looks forward to every year.

When asked “what’s next?”, Marree does not have to search for words that may also serve as some sage advice for others: “When you find your home in a values-based organisation that fits with you as a person and speaks so strongly as to why you studied law in the first place, you stay! Waking up and feeling like I am making a difference to those who need it most and who put their trust in you every day is the greatest reward of all.”

Marree is currently the Kaupapa Maaori Lawyer at the Tairaawhiti Community Law Centre. the current Co-Interim Kaitakawaenga for Community Law Centres Aotearoa, Co-Chair of Nga Kaiaawhina Hapori Maaori o te Ture (Maaori Caucus) and Co-East Coast Representative for Te Hunga Rooia Maaori o Aotearoa (The Maaori Law Society).

Note: We have retained double vowel spelling in this article to respect iwi preference.

Community Law by numbers

In the financial year ending June 2023 business as usual for Community Law Centres Aotearoa members produced some impressive outcomes which are reflected in the volume of caseloads as well as informing, advising and educating.

  • Managed 43,500 case work clients
  • Advised on 52,300 legal matters
  • Held 1200 law-related courses in communities to 24,000 participants
  • Clocked 1.36 million individual users to the Community Law Centres Aotearoa website that hosts the online Community Law Manual.

What it means to volunteer with Community Law

By Aimee Bryant

Aimee Bryant

I’ve been volunteering with Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley for around three years now, on the Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice Service (RILAS). At RILAS, the team provides initial advice and support to migrants and refugees. I also have several long-term clients, who we are assisting with family reunification applications. Recently I’ve had the honour of joining the Board as a Riu Tauiwi Trustee. Preparing to be interviewed for that role, I reflected on how I had come to volunteer at Community Law and why I want to become more involved in the strategic direction of the organisation.

Prior to joining the Law Society as Law Reform and Advocacy Manager, I worked with the Ombudsman. The role I held meant I couldn’t volunteer with Community Law, but I repeatedly saw the very real benefits of the kaupapa. Time and time again I saw what it means for someone to be equipped with the knowledge and support they need to access their legal rights or resolve issues. The first thing I did after accepting my role at the Law Society was put my name down to volunteer. I’ve been there since.

While I’ve taken a slightly alternative legal path, my work with Community Law brings me right back to what first drew me to the law, and it allows me to use my skills in service of the community. The staff and volunteers are dedicated, respectful, and deeply committed to enhancing the mana of their clients. Inside that building is a vibrant and accepting community, driven by an ethic of service, and it is a community I am immensely proud to be a part of.

Aimee Bryant is the Manager, Law Reform and Advocacy for the New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa.