The duty law system is under review after receiving its first payrise in 25 years only last year. For lawyers on the roster, the job is fast-paced and demanding, defending those who don't qualify for legal aid and can't afford to appoint their own counsel. With the job more demanding than ever, lawyers are opting out, and the Law Society has expressed concern for the system's future. Reporter Kate Green spent a day with a duty lawyer in Tai Rāwhiti-Gisborne.
At 7am, Gisborne City is beginning to come to life despite the incessant rain.
It's a Wednesday, and 27-year-old solicitor Bree Munro is headed two hours up the coast to the little courthouse in Ruatoria for the first court date of the year.
State Highway 35 is famously hard going, a combination of damage caused by severe weather and years of under-investment, and the suspension in Bree's little silver Toyota has to really earning its keep on the drive up.
Water is pooling on the roads already, filling the drains and ankle-deep potholes.
"I definitely feel for the locals that have to travel along this every day," Munro says, as we bounce through another rough patch. "Although I suspect they're a bit equipped than I am, vehicle-wise."
Ruatoria might seem a small place to have its own court house, but Munro says it's about access to justice. Since the court opened in 2003, people further north on the East Coast haven't needed to travel half a day to Gisborne, the next closest.
The court list is split between the duty lawyers rostered on that day. Lawyers opt in to a spot on the roster alongside their other work, and it comes with its share of pressures.
"It never feels like there's enough time, and we're working to a deadline," Munro says. "Like today, court opens at 10, and I want to be there around 9.30 if I can, to start talking to people, taking instructions, talking to the police."
Sometimes a case isn't as straightforward as it seems. Perhaps the defendant's version of events don't match the police prosecutors', or their bail address turns out to not be suitable.
In this case, the duty lawyer has to consult with their defendant and think on their feet.
Sometimes, particularly when lawyers are assigned to the arrest list, defendants can be difficult to deal with. They're often frustrated, upset, sometimes dealing with drug comedowns or mental health problems, and the lawyer comes into the firing line.
"There can be high emotions there," Munro says. "People have had their liberty taken away, they're sitting in a cell, they don't know what's going on, and you're the first person that they've talked to other than police."
Ruatoria's courthouse is small, with only one courtroom, and today the charges are mainly for drink-driving, one for theft, and some minor traffic infringements.
Munro says duty lawyers tend to be pretty committed to the idea of justice, and "standing up for the little guy".
"In court, your client, or the defendant, is going up against the state, really, the police prosecution or the Crown prosecutors, and they're really well resourced, and then, they have you. So you really have to be unwavering in your commitment in that way."
Working in a small town like Gisborne is part of the appeal for Munro.
"We all have really good relationships, we'll cover each other's files if needed or cover each other's duty lawyer slots on the roster if something else comes up. We're all quite collaborative and share ideas and support each other. I think that's the really special thing about working in Gisborne."
Post-Cyclone Gabrielle, the courtroom in the city was closed for a couple of days following the storm. With people waiting in the cells to have their cases heard, and the court still waiting for safety checks on the building, they improvised, and held court outside.
"It must have been the first sunny day that we had since the cyclone, and we're all outside and getting it done," Munro says. "It had seats like a public gallery and everything - it just makes me smile when I think about it."
But the job has become increasingly demanding over the past couple of decades. In April 2023, Law Society president Frazer Barton wrote to the Minister of Justice expressing concern that duty lawyer work had become unsustainable.
Barton says the society's members are telling him the job is becoming increasingly unappealing.
In June last year, duty lawyers got a pay bump of 17 percent - a decent increase, Barton says, but since it is the first in 25 years, it doesn't even match inflation.
The work pays $103 an hour, $126 on a Saturday. Barton says compared to other law work, that's low, and coupled with the increasing workload of the job, young lawyers aren't taking up the post.
"There's been a lot of legislative change over the last 10, 15 years," he says - more reports for judges to read, including victim's views and pre-sentence reports, and further bail act requirements.
"I've spoken to someone recently who said in the court he appeared in 15 years ago there would have been 150 files that would have greeted the judge, and they would all have been dealt with by lunch time," he says.
On the day in court with Bree Munro, it was more like 15.
So while it's a great place for young lawyers to cut their teeth, there are fewer coming through the ranks, which Barton says could lead to massive problems with the smooth operation of the courts.
A review of the duty law scheme began in September 2023, set to conclude this March. Barton's hopeful this will begin alleviating the pressures on the system.