Defence lawyers launch association to fight inequality amid COVID-19 pandemic

The national organisation aims to tackle the impact of an uneven criminal justice system

Defence lawyers launch association to fight inequality amid COVID-19 pandemic

Concerned about the impact of an uneven criminal justice system on fundamental rights during these trying times, defence lawyers have formed a national organisation dedicated to reform, training, and advocacy.

Established this month, the Defence Lawyers Association New Zealand includes senior lawyers from across New Zealand as well as the involvement of the Queen’s Counsel.

In a statement, the group said it is “committed to a specialised and high-quality defence bar to safeguard fundamental rights for all and advocating for policy and legislative reform to eradicate inequalities within the criminal justice system.”

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In an interview with RNZ, co-founder Christopher Stevenson said the launch was particularly timely amid the COVID-19 pandemic as lawyers faced increasingly challenging work conditions providing essential legal services.

"Our intention is to be engaged and a part of improvements in the criminal justice system because defence lawyers see it first-hand,” he said. "You go into New Zealand prisons and they're absolutely filled to the brim, mainly with young Māori men, and it's a shameful and very sorry sight."

According to Stevenson, defence lawyers were primarily concerned about delayed court hearings and rising prison populations at the height of the pandemic.

He suggested that “establishing a system for early release for non-violent inmates serving short sentences and ensuring people weren't taken into custody unless absolutely necessary” should be strongly considered.

Tiana Epati, senior defence lawyer and president of the New Zealand Law Society, has welcomed the formation of the organisation. She said it was “especially timely to support criminal defence lawyers given they are working in high risk environments as key essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis.”

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