Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill misleading

A bill proposing controls on legal aid in Family Courts proceedings is misleading about the savings it will deliver and should be deferred until a report on a major review of the Family Courts is presented to the Minister of Justice in March.

New Zealand Law Society President Jonathan Temm has told Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee that New Zealanders were being misled about the economic efficiencies that would be delivered by the Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill.

“We will not make these savings. There has been no social policy work done on the impact of this bill on children and other vulnerable groups. The Ministry of Justice has focused purely on perceived economic benefit,” Mr Temm said.

“Lawyers quite understand the need for prudent expenditure. However, the changes proposed in this bill are going to impact on child poverty. Constraints are being placed on the availability of legal aid for Family Courts, but savings in one place are going to result in cost blowouts in others. We are talking about the most vulnerable people in New Zealand here, and we are told there has been no time to investigate the social outcomes.”

Mr Temm says that in 2006 the then government had increased the eligibility for legal aid from 750,000 New Zealanders to 1.3 million. Ministry of Justice modelling at the time had confidently predicted the economic impact of this. Instead, five years later the country was facing a major blowout in legal aid expenditure which was nothing to do with lawyers but driven by government policy.

He says former Minister of Justice Simon Power initiated a major review of the Family Courts in 2011. This has resulted in major thinking on ways in efficiencies and cost savings could be introduced in the Family Courts. The Law Society will be presenting its report and recommendations by the end of this month, and a comprehensive final report is due to go to the Minister of Justice in March.

“This bill should be deferred until the select committee has viewed the report and considered the efficiencies it will recommend.”

Mr Temm says the Family Courts were introduced 30 years ago and were seen internationally as a landmark and visionary initiative. One of the key planks of the courts was that the judges had the power to appoint a senior lawyer to represent the interests of children involved in any proceedings.

By bringing Family Court appointment of lawyers into the legal aid system without any investigation of the social consequences and in isolation from a major review of the Family Court, the bill is a piecemeal and silo response to matters affecting access to justice and the rule of law.

“Lawyers do not want to be barriers to change. We recognise the fiscal problems our country faces, but we must speak out here on behalf of a group of very vulnerable New Zealanders who will be further threatened if the changes proposed by this bill occur. The underlying fundamentals of the Family Court system cannot be threatened,” he says.