Wednesday, 29 September 2010

securing access to justice for all

community law centres are not an organisation that get a lot of press attention, despite the fact that they provide a vital service to the community. catrionna maclennan talked about them here on radio nz this morning (nine to noon, 11.30am), and i've included a summary of what she said below.

she told us that in the 2008/09 year almost 230,000 people who can't afford lawyers were helped by them. funding for CLCs has been a problem for some years now. they were already underfunded & struggling. since their main source of funding is from interest earned on solicitor's trust accounts, the drop in interest rates has lead to a crisis situation. the government stepped in last year with a bailout to prevent centres closing. there was another bailout for this year, and $5.9 million has been put aside to cover the centres over the next 2 years. after this, the government expects more permanent funding to be found.

some of this is expected to come from a rise in interest rates and a recovery in the housing market. however, that's unlikely to happen. just remember that the depreciation claim for rental dwellings isn't cancelled until the next financial year (ie 2010/11 financial year). without the ability to claim depreciation, rental properties will no longer be such an attractive investment, and i'd expect the effect of this policy to hit from the middle of next year, if not sooner. without the recovery, there won't be an increase in the level of houses sold, so less movement through lawyers' trust accounts.

the minister of justice is suggesting that CLCs start finding alternative funding sources, but with my experience of NGOs, i know that it takes almost a full-time person just to do the funding applications. for organisations that are already badly understaffed, it's hardly a realistic possibility.

the other possibility the minister has put forward is an increasing requirement for lawyers to do pro bono work. ms mclennan points out that the pay at CLCs is extremely low, which means that it's usually the most junior and inexperienced staff who are sent to deal with people who may be illiterate, have english as a second language, have mental health issues or have drug & alcohol dependency issues. if the pay rates don't go up, that situation is unlikely to change.

one valuable point she made was that there were some aspects of law, such as benefit law and consumer protection law, that were not provided outside of CLCs because they weren't profitable. if CLCs fail or reduce in size, legal protection in those areas will decrease and that won't be good for anyone.

the legal services bill is currently open for submissions until 8 october. this is an area of particular importance to me, especially because we know that the structure of the current justice system favours those who can afford the best (& so most expensive) lawyers. the legal aid system provides some support for low income earners, but since it is now a legal loan system rather than an aid system (unless you pretty much have nothing), simply the fact of being lumbered with a significant loan will be a barrier to seeking justice for many poor people.

CLCs are the only alternative, where low-income people can get some kind of access to the justice system. it's crucial that they receive more secure funding over the long-term, and it would be really nice if that funding could purchase more than just the most inexperienced junior lawyers.

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