Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill will impact access to justice

Changes to family legal aid proposed in a bill before Parliament will have a major impact on access to justice, the New Zealand Law Society says.

Presenting a submission on the Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Amendment Bill, Caroline Hannan of the Law Society’s Family Law Section said the bill proposed a user charge of $100 for anyone accessing family legal aid.

“This is an enormous sum for the people who fit the criteria to be eligible for legal aid. This is taking money away from them that should be used for looking after their families,” she said.

Ms Hannan says there is a wrongful presumption behind the Bill that anyone applying for family legal aid was automatically making an application to the Family Courts. However, that is not so as family lawyers effectively provide a triage system which saw people pointed in the right direction for assistance such as counselling or social welfare support, and not just to the court.

“People who are respondents in Family Court proceedings usually find themselves in the court system through no action of their own. However, they will need to pay a $100 fee before they can access legal advice.”

Ms Hannan says the impact of the fee could be counterproductive, as it is likely more matters will go to court with people representing themselves. This will cause further court delays and costs and a severe emotional impact on people who are already vulnerable. The consequences on children could well be dire.

“The legal aid system should not be extended to cover lawyers for children,” she says. “Children must be adequately and properly represented by people who are totally independent from the adult parties.”

Extending the legal aid provisions and a quality assurance framework to lawyers for children is both unnecessary and dangerous.

“We already have a well-tried and successful system in place. Every lawyer appointed as a lawyer for the child must have had at least five years’ experience and must have completed a special lawyer for the child course. They must have been interviewed and approved by an expert panel. And their appointment is reviewed every three years,” she says.

The New Zealand Law Society has urged parliament’s justice and electoral committee to defer the bill until a major report on the Family Courts is presented to the Minister of Justice. The Law Society submission points out that the Family Courts review covers a number of issues which are also addressed by the bill.