Wed, Nov 24, 2021 5:00 PM

Legal aid system ‘struggling’

Lawyers are struggling to cope with the hundreds of desperate Nelsonians looking for representation. Photo: File.

Erin Bradnock

Hundreds of desperate Nelsonians in need of legal representation are having to be turned away as overloaded lawyers struggle to cope with a system on “life support”.

A new study has found that across the country 20,000 people seeking legal aid have been turned away, with one local lawyer saying that figure is likely a “conservative” one.

Steven Zindel from Zindels Barrister & Solicitor on New St says from his desk, he can hear the firm’s receptionist talking with desperate clients that they don’t have the capacity to take on.

“It’s about three people turned away a day, so 15 a week and 700 within a year. Mainly family clients,” Steven says.

He says he too often hears directly from someone in need of a lawyer who has already been turned away from other firms.

“I have a Christchurch person who tried all 63 listed legal aid providers in Christchurch on the Ministry of Justice website. He tried every available person and none would help,” he says.

Managing solicitor for Nelson Bays Community Law Service, Trevor Irwin, says there is a huge amount of pressure on the legal aid system throughout the country, and Nelson is no different.

“Family legal aid providers, in particular, are under a huge amount of pressure. It is very difficult for many people to get access to a family legal aid lawyer in this area who is not already inundated with work.”

Just last Thursday, Steven had heard from three people desperate for representation. One was a woman living in Westport who wrote she had “no luck over the last month finding anyone who has time to take on a new case”.

The woman went on to say if she couldn’t find a lawyer under legal aid she would have to pay for the fees herself.

A New Zealand Law Society survey released earlier this month surveyed almost 3000 lawyers’ issues surrounding ‘access to justice’ in Aotearoa.

New Zealand Law Society president Tiana Epati says the survey shows the country’s legal aid system is on “life support”.

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s legal aid system is collapsing,” says Tiana.

The survey also showed there were too few legal aid lawyers available at the start of Covid, and now there are fewer.

“Our survey showed almost a quarter of current legal aid lawyers intend to do less - or stop - legal aid work entirely within 12 months,” she says.

Steven says Covid has just highlighted the need for reform as courts become more and more backlogged.

“If you don’t invest in these things they are going to disintegrate,” he says.

Local lawyer Mark Dollimore says the cap on legal aid grants is a turn off for bigger firms in the region compared to private uncapped clients.

“The big firms generally don’t want junior lawyers doing legal aid, it’s a big problem I think,” he says.

Tiana is calling on the Government to address the strain on legal aid lawyers with a “three-spoke attack”.

“There needs to be a substantial, overall increase in legal aid remuneration. Secondly, there needs to be more funding for junior lawyers to support legal aid seniors, because there are no junior lawyers to succeed seniors who are leaving.

“Finally, the administrative burden of becoming a legal aid provider and running a file must be dealt with,” she says.

Trevor Irwin, says there is a huge amount of pressure on the legal aid system throughout the country, and Nelson is no different.

“Family legal aid providers, in particular, are under a huge amount of pressure. It is very difficult for many people to get access to a family legal aid lawyer in this area who is not already inundated with work.”