24 Apr 2024

Hiring freeze leaves Oranga Tamariki with no lawyers in Gisborne or Southland

5:27 pm on 24 April 2024
Oranga Tamariki Sign

Oranga Tamariki has proposed cutting 447 jobs, reducing its workforce by 9 percent. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Oranga Tamariki's hiring freeze has left the ministry without lawyers in Gisborne and Southland.

The Ministry for Children has lawyers that work with vulnerable children across the country, often in the youth and family courts.

Oranga Tamariki spokesperson Caz Anderson said the vacancies in Gisborne and Southland were currently being covered by other regions.

"Where vacancies occur, we assess the level of work and what resources are required before deciding the appropriate course of action. In some cases, work is redistributed across the workforce. For example, the Dunedin office is supporting Southland, similarly the Napier office is supporting Gisborne.

"Like many public service agencies, Oranga Tamariki has a temporary hiring freeze in place whilst we work through a formal organisational change proposal with kaimahi," Anderson said.

The government department has proposed cutting 447 jobs, reducing its workforce by 9 percent.

That would involve 632 roles being disestablished - including 70 vacant roles- with 185 new roles created.

Public Service Association (PSA) assistant secretary Fleur Fitzsimons said not having lawyers located in Sothland and Gisborne was "letting down children and families" in those communities.

"Locally based lawyers develop critical relationships and they understand their local communities."

She said the lawyers also supported social workers to make lawful and appropriate decisions about the care and protection of children.

Fitzsimons said they were concerned that lawyers covering from other regions would be "forcing more work onto people who are already overworked."

"This isn't a sensible step on any level," she said.

Job cuts were also likely to impact the legal team.

The Law Society said it had been advised Oranga Tamariki was consulting on a proposal that would impact their lawyers across the country.

It said while it had no information about the detail of this proposal, it remained "concerned at the prospect of reduced legal services in this critical area".

Law Society family law section chair Lauren Pegg said they held "significant concerns for the impact of these proposed changes on vulnerable children and young people, as well as the proper functioning of the Family Court".

"The services these lawyers provide cannot simply be carried out by others in the organisation, for example social workers, who already face complex and heavy workloads," she said.

Pegg said affected lawyers and their colleagues would also be stressed by the cuts and that presented an "ongoing risk to their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of those who may be left to deal with the aftermath of such decisions".

Local MP concerned

Labour MP Ingrid Leary in select committee

Ingrid Leary Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

Taieri MP Ingrid Leary said the hiring freeze in Southland was effectively a cut, and was putting children's lives at risk.

Leary said Dunedin, which was currently supporting Southland, was a significant distance away and already under pressure.

"The Invercargill Initiative report shows that 23 percent of young people in Invercargill live in deprivation - significantly higher than the national average. Many have complex needs that often involve OT intervention.

"Lawyers who work in urgent uplift and care cases are critical to the safety of those young people," Leary said

"They often work into the night securing court custody and care orders when children are in imminent danger. That aligns with OT's own practice guidelines."

She said the hiring freeze also impacted on the proper functioning of the Family Court.

"Families, and especially children, need informed and timely decisions. The services these lawyers provide are specialist and can't be done by laypeople," she said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs