• Access to the Law Under Threat

    Back in the late 1960s in Britain, I became friendly with Tony Lynes, the activist who founded the Child Poverty Action Group. With his help, I set up a free legal advice service in Oxford, where I was then living and teaching.

    When I became the parliamentary candidate in Southampton, I opened a similar advice centre in that city – and I was delighted to be joined by another young Kiwi law teacher, Malcolm Grant, who is now the Provost of University College, London.

    I have ever since taken a supportive interest in the provision of free legal advice to those who couldn’t afford it. I was delighted to find – on my return to New Zealand – a well-established network of 27 community law centres, offering free legal advice (and, on occasion, legal representation) to people in need.

    Being denied legal advice might not spring to the top of many minds when it comes to forms of deprivation. Yet it can be one of the most severe disadvantages in a modern society. The rule of law is fundamental to our claim to live in a free society (it was the great Chief Justice Edward Coke who declared in the seventeenth century that everyone is equal before the law) but that is not much help to someone who cannot get the advice needed to make use of it.

    The denial of legal advice is of particular significance to those of few means and little power or influence. Unless they are helped to call the law in aid, they will have no defence against those who treat them wrongly.

    New Zealand’s 27 community law centres cover most of the country but focus especially on those areas of acknowledged greatest need. In the Eastern Bay of Plenty, where I live, the need is certainly acute, and is recognised in matters such as health care through the excellent work of the Eastern Bay Primary Health Alliance which I have the privilege to chair.

    No one would wish to see a high-needs community denied a proper standard of health care. Yet the possibility has now emerged that access to legal advice for the same deprived community might be in jeopardy.

    The funding provided for the community law centres has hitherto come from a special fund financed by the interest earned on monies held in solicitors’ trust funds, topped up when necessary by the government. The recession has meant that this source of funding has fallen sharply, so that the government needs to find more money to keep the service at its present level.

    The sums involved are, by government standards, pretty small; but finding more money runs directly counter to the government’s drive to offset the recession-induced decline in tax revenue by cutting public spending.

    It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Community Law Centres of Aotearoa have been put on notice that a review is under way, with a view to cutting rather than increasing expenditure. The goal of the exercise is to make savings – to achieve “economies of scale” – which are likely to reduce the numbers of such centres and restrict the geographical coverage they provide.

    The review has some all too familiar features. The Ministry of Justice, in its drive to save money, is not averse to spending money on consultants to conduct the review. The intention is to rank the areas of the country which will need to be covered, with the implication that some areas – perhaps like the Eastern Bay of Plenty, with a small population – will be left out.

    Even in areas where the service is maintained, it will no longer be funded but will be “purchased” following a tendering process, so that existing providers might lose out to those who offer a lower price. As so often, it seems, the market model is the only one that is contemplated.

    Areas that are left out will be served by a centrally funded 0800 national call centre. The designers of the scheme seem unaware that those most in need of help are the least likely to get on the phone to explain their problems to a faceless stranger. My own experience over decades of offering help and advice is that those seeking help feel most comfortable when they can relax face-to-face with a real person who is there to help them.

    No one should resist the search for better ways of doing things. I entirely support the quest for more streamlined organisation, more shared services, better value for money.

    But the omens are not good. The chances are that, when the results of the review are announced later this year, there will be a reduced and less effective attempt to maintain in place one of the cardinal features of a civilised society.

    And it would be a pity if – in the course of what is proving to be so far a pretty ineffectual counter-recessionary strategy – a government that has spent billions on tax cuts for the rich should again look for penny-pinching but nevertheless painful sacrifices to be made by those who can least afford to make them.

    Bryan Gould

    28 April 2012

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