New Zealand Law Society - Stronger together

Stronger together

Stronger together
Frazer presenting at the Auckland question and answer session

New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa President Frazer Barton share his insights on travelling the length and breadth of the country to engage with members of the profession as part of a series of national hui. Hearing from the frontline has provided excellent feedback on key issues. What these engagements have shown is that together we are stronger and that the Law Society is a strong national voice with the ability to represent members where and when it matters most.  

Getting on the road in Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the true pleasures in life. In recent months I’ve been lucky enough as the President of the Law Society to travel the length and breadth of the motu, from the bottom of the South Island to the North, meeting with the profession. Chief Executive of the Law Society Katie Rusbatch and I have attended more than 24 question and answer sessions and functions, with a few more to come.

It’s been an amazing opportunity to hear what matters to lawyers, find out what they want to talk about, and shape the future direction of the Law Society. It’s also been a great chance to provide detailed updates on the Law Society’s key strategic priorities and let everyone know about the work we are doing on their behalf.

In Autumn we launched our updated membership offering to lawyers. The refreshed offer means lawyers will get the same great service with even more value. The Law Society is a strong voice and trusted advocate for access to justice and the rule of law across the country. With 13 branches nationwide, we know that the support and services those branches offer is deeply valued.

There are common themes around the country about the challenges lawyers are dealing with; things like legal aid and duty lawyer shortages, a lack of family lawyers and criminal lawyers in general, particularly in the regions, and increasing costs of practice. There are challenges with recruitment, stressed lawyers, mental health, and wellbeing issues as well.

We’re not there to tell people what should be done. We’re there to listen and collectively come up with solutions. We need to work together to ensure the sustainability of our profession and the representative side of the Law Society will play a big role in that.

A strong, national voice

We are stronger together, there is no doubt about that. But that means being courageous and raising awareness of issues that may not always have bi-partisan support. Personally, 2024 has been a busy one for me as President of the Law Society. Media interviews have come thick and fast as our advocacy has struck a chord with mainstream New Zealand.

Frazer and Law Society Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch outside the Canterbury question and answer session

Tikanga has been topical, and the Law Society recently wrote to the Regulations Review Committee asking to be heard if it considers any complaints about regulations issued by the New Zealand Council of Legal Education (the Council). In 2021 and 2022, the Council consulted on its resolutions that Te Ao Māori concepts would be taught in each of the core law subjects within the Bachelor of Laws, alongside a standalone compulsory tikanga Māori | Māori Laws and Philosophy subject. The Law Society supported the proposal then and continues to support it now. For those new to this issue, I refer you to the article in this issue of LawTalk. Many organisations have indicated their support for the Council’s tikanga Māori regulations: Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa, Pacific Lawyers Association, NZBA, Asian Legal Network, the Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association, the New Zealand Law Students’ Association, Equal Justice Project, the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand, the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association, Otago Women’s Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association and the Defence Lawyers Association to name a few.

"We’re there to listen and collectively come up with solutions. We need to work together to ensure the sustainability of our profession and the representative side of the Law Society will play a big role in that"

At Parliament, members of our law reform committees have been making submissions on important legislation before the House. Our law reform role was front and centre as the Law Society recommended to Select Committee that the Parole (Mandatory Completion of Rehabilitative Programmes) Amendment Bill did not proceed. Our submissions detailed that the amendments risk operating as a bar to parole eligibility in circumstances over which prisoners have no control. Power would be inappropriately moved from the Parole Board to staff at the Department of Corrections, who may not be best placed to identify appropriate rehabilitation pathways. Resourcing constraints would mean prisoners are likely unable to access programmes they must complete in order to be considered for parole.

The rights of those in our most vulnerable communities should always be advocated for if we are to back up and support all our communities.

Legal aid and cost of practice

Legal aid and access to it continues to be a key priority for the Law Society. In March, we released the Cost of Practice report, which showed that in the past three years alone the operational costs of running a legal practice increased by 15.3% each year. The report includes findings specific to legal aid providers, and really does shine a light on administrative requirements and how client needs are being impacted by the amount of time that legal aid lawyers can spend on billable hours. These are lawyers who are already experiencing significant increases in operational costs and who are not being fairly remunerated. We continue to seek progress in the remuneration of legal aid of course, but this report highlights other pressures that must also be addressed.

The report also showed that law firms are facing significant challenges attracting and retaining good staff. Legal practices also reported sizable increases to the cost of professional indemnity insurance.

There was a huge amount of work that went into the Cost of Practice report, including from members of the profession. This will pay dividends in due course, as it gives us the evidence that we need to advocate strongly for improvements.

Advocating for lawyers on AML/CFT

With 14% of Cost of Practice survey respondents reporting regulatory and compliance burdens as their main operational challenge, many mentioned AML/CFT. Already, we have written to Associate Minister of Justice Nicole McKee, urging reform in several key areas that will relieve some of the AML/CFT compliance burden, without undermining the regime.

A trusted advisor on law reform

We at the Law Society are even-handed, it doesn’t matter who’s in government. If there are issues of law that are unworkable, unconstitutional, or undermine access to justice, then we will be vocal. The legal profession has a strong history of advocating for all communities across New Zealand to receive fair representation and support. At its core, this advocacy aims to uphold the fundamental need for access to justice for all.

With the new Government being elected on the back of a promise to be tough on crime, it is not a surprise that a raft of criminal bills have been hot topic issues with the public, in the media and within the legal profession itself.

The Law Society’s Youth Justice Committee convenor Dale Lloyd told the Justice Select Committee that criminalising ram raid offending by children and young people was inconsistent with children’s rights. Elsewhere, the much-publicised Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill has taken some of the spotlight. Submissions from The Law Society’s law reform committees made 16 recommendations. While agreeing with the Attorney-General that the Bill unjustifiably infringes rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, the Law Society believes these rights infringements have been understated. The Law Society maintains there is insufficient evidence to suggest the new measures will be effective and hopes to see these recommendations taken into account.

The legal profession’s concerns were heard loud and clear over the Government’s announcement that it would withdraw funding for ‘section 27 reports’ in sentencing. With funding for these reports removed, the only way a person facing sentence will be able to access them is by paying privately. Those who can afford this would then have a greater level of representation in Court than those receiving legal aid. That is a breach of fundamental rights. Even where policy promises have been made during an election, we expect to see robust policy work supporting their development and the consideration of alternatives, alongside consideration of the wider implications of legislative change.

It’s not just criminal law, either – our law reform function covers all areas of law. On the high-profile Fast-Track Approvals Bill, Environment Law Committee convenor Vicki Morrison-Shaw told the Environment Select Committee of the Law Society’s concerns about the powers created by the Bill, and recommended improvements to drafting. In the area of company law, deputy-convenor of the Law Reform Committee Jonathan Orpin-Dowell appeared before Select Committee to raise practical concerns about the Companies (Address Information) Amendment Bill, recommending that work instead progress on a director identification number system.

We’ve got 17 committees plus the Family Law, In-house Lawyers, and Property Law sections, so that’s hundreds of volunteers. That’s thousands of hours. It is an enormous contribution and when I meet with members of the Government and members of the Opposition, they all speak highly of our input.

Communities across Aotearoa are diverse and culturally rich; we mustn’t forget or abandon any one of those communities when working on new laws and in our representation of them.

"Even where policy promises have been made during an election, we expect to see robust policy work supporting their development and the consideration of alternatives, alongside consideration of the wider implications of legislative change"

Sometimes, it is the judiciary for whom we must speak up and support. With the backing of Maria Dew, President of the New Zealand Bar Association, I felt compelled to pen an opinion piece on the subject which ran across The Press, The Dominion Post and the Waikato Times. The piece called out the growing attacks on our judiciary. In the name of democracy, it’s important that decisions can be analysed and debated, but personalised attacks on the judiciary like we have seen must be curtailed.

This is an important point, because this is about our constitution and our democracy. Our judiciary are an independent branch of government; they can’t speak for themselves.

Supporting lawyers in tough times

I was buoyed to see that young family lawyer Brintyn Smith was keen to work with the Law Society’s communications team to tell his story of his recovery after being attacked at the Whangārei courthouse more than a year ago. For Brintyn, the road to recovery has been long and painful. He didn’t need to tell his story, but he felt that others should know what happened and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of lawyers. Like all of us, he is worried about financial cuts to the sector and worried about the growing intimidation of lawyers who are fundamentally just trying to do the best job then can. Reading Brintyn’s story in this edition of LawTalk and watching the accompanying video interview he did is both harrowing and yet heart-warming; if Brintyn can stand up and be strong in the face of what he went through, then so can we all.

I know Brintyn received a high level of support from both the Family Law Section and from wider colleagues and support networks; we are stronger together, and I hope that Brintyn will go from strength-to-strength.

Threats and real attacks against lawyers and other public facing professionals have become something of a trend, unfortunately. It is something we need to be conscious of and it’s getting worse. Times have changed, and we must adapt and stay strong and united.