Tuesday, 17 February 2009

save our community law centres

justice is supposed to be blind. in the sense that your economic status, your race, gender or any other attribute should not be a barrier to accessing the justice system. in order to ensure access to justice in this country, we have the legal services agency (LSA) to administer the legal aid system. a system that ensures that the poorest can have adequate representation when they need it.

there are gaps though, as many people don't qualify for legal aid based on the financial threshholds, but still don't have the funds to adequately access justice. this is why the LSA also funds community law centres. well actually, the community law centres are solely funded from interest off solicitors trust accounts, which has been slashed as interest rates have fallen. the LSA merely administers the funding.

the LSA has confirmed a first instalment of funding cuts of 43%, effective from 1 july 2009. the latest OCR interest reduction has yet to be added to this, which may result in a further 10-20% of cuts. for most community law centres, this may well mean closure.

these law centres help more than 200,000 low income kiwis directly per year for problems not covered by legal aid. the demand for these services will be rising as a result of the recession ie fewer kiwis will be in a position to afford legal services due to economic hardship. yet, instead of increasing funding to account for the potential increase in demand, the funding will be halved. compare this to australia, where funding will be increased to take into account the fact that peoople who previously had good jobs or were successfully self-employed might now need these centres for debt, benefit, employment and even bankruptcy matters.

aside from direct legal advice, thousands of others are helped by law centres through community legal education and law reform work. centres are too busy doing the work to self promote. they are cheap and efficient as they attract and co-ordinate volunteer thousands of hours of donated legal services.

given this vital service, you would think that funding for law centres would have been made more secure. however, no-one at the LSA thought to plan for the time when interest rates went down. and now that it has happened, the LSA has simply chosen to cut funding, without caring about the impact on the poorest section of society. in this regard, the LSA has failed in its primary function, which is to ensure access to justice.

i don't know if it will be worth much, but if you can, please take the trouble to write to our new minister of justice, hon simon power. you can reach him at s.power@ministers.govt.nz. please reiterate the importance of providing access to justice for all new zealanders, and request that he cancel the proposed reduction in funding, and in fact increase funding beyond what exists currently, to cope with increasing demand. you never know, it might just be you who needs the service when you're suddenly made redundant.

note: a lot of the information in this post was provided to me by richard small, a wellinton lawyer

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