18 Nov 2021

Our broken legal aid system

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 18 November 2021
Symbol of law and justice with New Zealand Flag. Close up.

Photo: 123rf.com

Legal aid lawyers desperate for the government to change a system in crisis say it's "too heart breaking" to get their hopes up that it will actually happen.

A new Law Society survey's found that in the last year, 20,000 people seeking legal aid have been turned away by overloaded lawyers.

What's worse, is that 25 percent of lawyers currently in that field are considering doing less legal aid work or leaving the profession altogether.

Today The Detail's Jessie Chiang looks at why our legal aid system isn't working for the people who need it and the lawyers helping them.

RNZ’s Farah Hancock started looking into legal aid as part of an In Depth series about New Zealand's justice system.

"I thought if I ever needed legal aid, I might be able to get it. I had no idea that the legal aid eligibility threshold is just so tough," she says.

For criminal cases, there's not a fixed eligibility threshold, and if there's a chance of jail time for six months or more, most of the time the client qualifies for legal aid.

Family or civil cases are a different story. The client can't earn more than around $24,000 a year.

Hancock says you pretty much need to be on a benefit, but even it depends what type – superannuation or veteran’s pensions are deemed too much income for legal aid.

Even if you do qualify, getting a lawyer to take on your case is another mountain to climb.

Many lawyers just don’t have the capacity.

"There's one guy, his name starts with a W, so he says, 'on an alphabetical list, I'm towards the end', and by the time people ring him, he can hear absolute desperation in their voice because they've figured that they're not going to find someone to represent them," says Hancock.

Law Society president Tiana Epati says lawyers are having to become quasi social workers, organising childcare for clients or even lending professional clothes for them to go to court.

All the extra work has taken its toll - especially when legal aid lawyer rates haven't changed in the last 13 years.

"There is this popular misconception about lawyers that we all have these plush offices and we drive expensive cars and we look like something out of Suits, whereas for the 2000 - 3000 who do legal aid work, nothing could be further from the truth," she says.

Epati says the organisation has been writing to the government every year for the last 10 years about problems in legal aid – putting forward 33 submissions.

"They (legal aid lawyers) are caught in a situation where they want to become a lawyer to help people, but (we are) facing for the first time a future where we're not sure we can keep doing that because to do so would be to break ourselves in the process," she says.

As to whether the government will act on their pleas, Tiana Epati says she'll wait and see.

"It's too heart breaking to get my hopes up."

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