Law Society report highlights 'collapsing' legal aid system

Māori and Pasifika legal aid lawyers feel a "particularly immense" strain

Law Society report highlights 'collapsing' legal aid system

A report released by the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa has highlighted the country’s “collapsing” legal aid system.

The report compiles findings from the recently concluded Access to Justice Survey. Responses from nearly 3,000 lawyers revealed that more than 20,000 people were unable to receive legal aid from lawyers.

“Vulnerable people who cannot afford lawyers and seek legal aid are not getting it because the number of lawyers undertaking legal aid has diminished. Legal aid lawyers are unable to cope with demand, are too poorly paid to deal with the complex cases they have, so they quit the legal aid system,” Law Society President Tiana Epati said. “This has caused a crunch: too many cases, too few legal aid lawyers to deal with them due to unsustainable remuneration. Consequence? Ordinary people are accessing a system but not accessing justice.”

She indicated that Māori and Pasifika legal aid lawyers are bearing a “particularly immense” strain.

“Lawyers working in Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi Law carry the heaviest legal aid burden and spend nearly twice as much time providing free legal services (on average) as most lawyers,” Epati said. “Legal aid lawyers who identify as Pacific peoples are also more likely to have done legal aid work in the last 12 months and are working excessive hours; 54 hours a week compared with 50 hours for legal aid lawyers and 47 for all lawyers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added significantly to this issue, and the Law Society pointed out that many who do not receive legal aid face “potential life changing consequences.”

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s legal aid system is collapsing. I’m calling on government to address this immediately,” Epati said.

She warned the government that the pool of senior legal aid lawyers needed to address the massive backlog of cases was growing smaller.

“The goodwill of lawyers has been drained dry. It is very unclear how this mountain of work will be tackled, or by whom,” Epati said. “Our survey showed almost a quarter of current legal aid lawyers intend to do less – or stop – legal aid work entirely within 12 months. Legal aid lawyers literally can’t to do this work anymore. It’s not viable.”

As the government makes preparations for the next financial year’s budget, Epati said that a “three-spoke attack” by the government was necessary to address the problem.

“Firstly, there needs to be a substantial, overall increase in legal aid remuneration. Secondly, there needs to be more funding for junior lawyers to support legal aid seniors. At the moment, there’s no funding for this, compounding the problem because there are no junior lawyers to succeed seniors who are leaving,” she explained. “Finally, the administrative burden of becoming a legal aid provider and running a file must be dealt with. Many lawyers refer to this as a stand-alone barrier.”

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