Law Society advocates for improvements to Police Detention Legal Assistance scheme

The society’s statement followed its intervention in a Court of Appeal case wherein the lawyers under the scheme could not be contacted

Law Society advocates for improvements to Police Detention Legal Assistance scheme

The New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa (NZLS) is advocating for improvements to the Police Detention Legal Assistance (PDLA) scheme.

The society had recently intervened in an appeal filed by Christchurch man Zane Kerr against the New Zealand police, wherein he was unable to gain access to a lawyer under the PDLA scheme.

Kerr had been arrested on a charge of refusing to provide a blood specimen to police as per the drink-driving scheme procedure. While detained at the Christchurch central police station the night of his arrest in July 2016, he had been asked whether he wished to speak to a lawyer. When he answered in the affirmative, an attempt was made to contact first his own lawyer, and then subsequently, 12 other lawyers on the PDLA list. On failing to reach any of the lawyers, the constable on Kerr’s case proceeded to put him under arrest.

The District Court at Christchurch convicted Kerr of the charge in October 2016, and his first appeal to the High Court was dismissed. Kerr then presented his case to the Court of Appeal, arguing that the decision should be reversed on the grounds that he had not been granted his right to a lawyer.

The Court of Appeal granted leave to allow the NZLS to intervene in the case, along with the New Zealand Bar Association and the Ministry of Justice.

“The Law Society has been actively engaging with the Ministry of Justice over the years to ensure the PDLA scheme remains effective. It is vital that those who have been arrested or detained have access to and receive legal advice as guaranteed to them by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act,” said NZLS Legal Services Committee convenor Elizabeth Bulger.

Rachel Reed QC and Honor Ford served as NZLS representatives and submitted that it was “not unreasonable for a toll-free phone number to be provided for people requiring access to a lawyer while in detention, and to ensure that number was staffed on a 24-hour basis,” the NZLS said.

Due to the case, the PDLA scheme in Christchurch was modified to introduce a roster system in 2019.

In its ruling on 23 June, which overturned Kerr’s conviction, the Court of Appeal said that it was the state’s responsibility to ensure “that the scheme fulfils its purpose of providing contact details of lawyers capable of and willing to provide legal advice to detained persons.”

The NZLS welcomed the decision, and said that it was “helpful” for the court to have clarified the government’s obligation on this matter. In light of the court’s ruling, the society has called for the prioritisation of a nationwide review of the scheme.

“It is helpful that the Court of Appeal has provided clarity about the government’s obligation to ensure the PDLA scheme fulfils its purpose. The Law Society is committed to working with the Ministry of Justice to look at ways the scheme can be improved, to ensure the right to counsel is facilitated,” Bulger said.

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