Public information and law-related education in New Zealand

Justice services that are accessible to all members of the public are a requirement of a fair and democratic society. The Ministry provides appropriate access to resources, legal information and representation, which enables individuals, businesses and communities to uphold their rights and fulfill their legal obligations. Justice services that are accessible help to build and maintain public trust in the justice system’.

From ‘Transforming the legal aid system’

In 2009, a review of legal aid in New Zealand was carried out by Dame Margaret Bazley. In November she published her final report, ‘Transforming the legal aid system’ with recommendations for change. A Legal Services Bill based on the findings was published in August 2010.

Dame Margaret Bazley reported on evidence suggesting that, for many people, legal problems are not one-off events and may form part of an underlying set of family or social difficulties.

Legal information, advice and other forms of assistance need to address those underlying problems. Hence:

As long as the underlying problems remain untreated, a high proportion of people who are eligible for legal aid will continue to have their cases drawn into the justice system. Legal aid expenditure will thus remain overwhelmingly focused at the very end of a dispute resolution process. The legal aid system does not seem to be focused on helping people to resolve their problems before they get into the justice system, or on helping people.

Early advice, information, and support

The report advised that early advice, information, and support is an important part of the legal aid system. It can help to:

  • prevent cases escalating and requiring expensive legal solutions, such as representation in court
  • reduce the knock-on effect on other public services, particularly heath services and income support (people who cannot resolve their problems often end up in cycles of decline, sometimes resulting in loss of income, stress-related illness and relationship breakdown, which results in a significant unseen cost to public services, such as healthcare services)
  • prevent the creation of additional related problems that would create further costs.

Many problems, if resolved at an early stage, may not require a formal legal solution. Investment in early advice, information, and support could reduce the number and cost of cases seen by courts or formal mediation services.

Continuum of services

Dame Margaret Baxley found that the current legal aid system had arbitrarily divided legal aid services into categories of information and education, legal advice, and legal representation.

I see strong interdependencies between the various elements of the legal aid system, and the broader social services that many legal aid clients already access. I consider it may be more useful to see the various elements as operating along a continuum, rather than arbitrarily dividing the services along provider or sector lines. Because of those divisions, the legal aid system seems to under-utilise the very valuable services offered by community-based organisations such as citizens advice bureaux, community law centres, and the wider social services.

In terms of numbers, a large number of people who interact with the legal aid system interact at the information and education end, but the bulk of legal aid funding is spent on representation. In this way, the system is overwhelmingly focused on the very end of a dispute resolution system‘.

The review considered what constitutes an effective legal aid scheme and describes each of its interdependent components. These were listed as:

  • Providing the right mix of information, advice and representation services.
  • Ensuring the right people can access services.
  • Providing high quality legal aid services.
  • Supporting an effective and efficient court system, and
  • Managing taxpayers funds effectively.

Providing the right mix of services

It is critical to recognise that an effective legal aid system operates as a continuum of services from information and advice through to representation. It should be seen as part of a coordinated response to social needs.

Accessible advice, information, representation, and dispute resolution services

Services should be accessible and provided in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances of the individual and the nature of their legal need.

Assistance and support for families going through the court system

The legal aid system needs to ensure that its clients have help to understand the process and their obligations at its different stages. The legal aid system should link families into community services that can address disruption during and after court proceedings. For those first-time defendants, and for the children of defendants, the system needs to link with other parts of the justice system to make the most of the “teachable moment”, to try to reduce the risk of re-offending and offending by the next generation.

Joined-up services

Close links between legal assistance and existing social services should enable people’s problems to be diagnosed accurately and dealt with appropriately. When people first come into the justice system, particularly into the community-based advice services, those advice services should assess what social assistance people already receive and work with them to mobilise the social services needed to address problems such as budgeting, debt, housing, health, and unemployment. It is better to deal with these problems before they escalate into legal problems that need to be resolved in court.

Empowerment

People should be empowered to resolve their own problems, with advice and information, and legal representation should be funded where and to the extent that was necessary (and where the person and their legal problem were eligible) in a way that achieved value both for the aided person and the taxpayer.

Flexible service delivery

Services should be delivered in a variety of ways, with a mix of privately and publicly provided services. The Government should be able to fund services, or provide them directly where the market fails to deliver services to an optimal quality, quantity, or cost.

Community Law Centres

The legal system must anticipate and meet the legal needs of clients. It must be integrated with the community-based information and advice services.

Community law centres are the main providers of legal information and education in New Zealand. These activities are part of a mix of legal services and complement their role in providing legal advice, assistance and representation together with law reform and community advocacy.

The review stressed the importance of everyone in New Zealand being able to access a consistent range of quality legal services from law centres. One of their recommendations was to develop national standards for community law centres.

National Standards

A legal aid system needs to have a national overview, and to be strongly linked to government agencies and non-governmental organisations throughout the justice and social sectors‘.

The National Performance Standards are an important component of the framework for the delivery of community legal services. In May 2010, changes were introduced to ensure that the legal services delivered to communities reflect identified needs and delivered to consistent standards throughout New Zealand. They cover service delivery, the stewardship of law centres and day-to-day operations.

The standards also include criteria for providing legal information, criteria for law-related education and criteria for law reform.

See the national perfomance standards (75 KB).

Legal Services Act 2011

In August 2010, a Bill was introduced to replace the Legal Services Act 2000. The 2000 Act was relatively progressive with its purpose including the support of community legal services, ‘by funding community law centres, education and research’.

Reference to funding education has been removed from the main purpose of the new Act. There are two references to legal education. Firstly, under the interpretation of legal services, under (b)(ii) it says that legal services includes ‘the provision of legal information and law-related education.’ Following considerable lobbying there is further reference in Part 3, under the administration of the legal services system. Clause 68 lists the functions of the Secretary for Justice and under (2)(g) it states that the Secretary may ‘undertake or fund law-related research and education’.

The Legal Services Act 2011 received assent on 11th April 2011. Changes to the way in which legal aid services are purchased will be phased in from October 2011.

Published: 18 October 2016

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