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Continuing the Conversation ... Legal practice in Nelson

OPINION: Continuing the Conversation ... Legal practice in Nelson

By Steven Zindel, Zindels, Nelson. 

All credit to Frances Joychild QC for her excellent article, Continuing the Conversation ... The fading star of the Rule of Law. I didn't even know any Queen's Counsel still worked on civil legal aid cases and so that was an education for a start.

We have a five lawyer firm here in Nelson which takes on all comers, as the cab rank rule used to be observed. Three of us are recent graduates and, like Frances, my partner and I have found this to be a very rewarding experience. It's like a blood transfusion if you're a weary old practitioner, wondering sometimes how much of a difference you actually make, to pass on what you know to enthusiastic young lawyers.

And these graduates are all really smart, keen and prepared to work for low wages (we're working on that as legal aid supervision rules have been loosened so our staff are able to do more work on cases). I've found over the last twenty years of hiring that graduates actually are able to be useful quite quickly; it's surprising how much they can do with the right encouragement and training. If any other colleagues can take on a graduate, even at the minimum wage with some kind of bonus scheme for billing or staying for a set period of time, that would help to alleviate the current over-supply of law graduates and allow these young people, whom the country has expensively trained, to use their skills and not to go overseas.

As for what our graduates work on, I echo the comments in the article about Dickensian times. Here's a smattering of our recent case experiences:

a) a beneficiary who had no permanent address and missed his mail for a work search assessment appointment with WINZ, as he was out of town, had his benefit cancelled. This was confirmed by the usually compliant benefit review committee (no legal aid funding for representation here) and legal aid was then refused, on the basis of insufficient prospects of success, for the appeal to the Social Security Appeal Authority. MSD's legal section reviewed the case, thankfully, and the man's benefit was restored, with the appeal able to be withdrawn. But there was no income for our client in the meantime and he had to depend on family or charity;

b) ACC regularly, on the basis of the same predictable doctors' advice, will terminate claimants' compensation because there may also be some natural wear and tear of the body, they can't see the cause of the claimant's chronic pain or they assess a theoretical capacity to work in some  job that is off the planet. These ACC recipients may be cut off from their income (although sometimes receiving welfare if their partners don't work) for 12 months or more while they pursue their review or appeal rights. There is legal aid for this, which is just as well as there's usually an expensive expert to fund. Sometimes, claimants let their three months for a review run out because they're demoralised, broken and don't know where to turn. We have ACC cases from all over the country because people can't find ACC lawyers near them who are prepared to work on legal aid;

c) Many women, usually, for whom we act have been ripped off by their entrepreneurial partners on relationship property, with companies and trusts. They have no idea of documents they've signed. Sometimes, they're ignorant of the ownership even of the family home. The black letter legal manoeuvres that may be arrayed against them make for a Bleak House indeed;

d) immigration cases (no legal aid) for situations such as partner and family reunification where all sorts of outrageous probing will go on for clients with English as a second language and where their home country documents may be hard to obtain;

e) a family case or two where apparently straightforward situations of the father breaching parenting orders and refusing to return children has not been met by immediate enforcement of the orders and instead the father has possession and then welfare rights while the parties are stuck in the gridlock of the Family Court case management process, even on the so-called urgent track;

f) employment cases where unversed employees are mucked around as faux casuals or on 90 day no rights clauses and who frequently do not know where to go for help. Unions are emasculated and CAB and the law centres do not have the resources. These employees may miss the unreasonably tight 90 day period to notify a personal grievance and then there is procedural wrangling, at an advanced level, to try to establish exceptional circumstances. After an employee has challenged a dismissal some employers will engage in a minute review of his or her employment conduct, including reviewing their personal emails sent at work for personal activity such as Trade Me on work time, or better still any salacious activity that might unsettle an applicant, to attempt to validate the dismissal or to reduce remedies.

The situation for many of our clients is far from a level playing field in a fair society, despite all our country's advantages. But that's why we do what we do. Because we love to redress injustice. And if we turn our minds to it and employ a few more willing helpers, I believe we can help to turn the tide and address the access to justice crisis in this country highlighted by Winkelmann J in her Dunedin speech on 7 November 2014.

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Last updated on the 9th November 2016