Dunedin lawyer's bid to help the penniless represent themselves in court

Arguing your case before a court can be an intimidating experience.
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Arguing your case before a court can be an intimidating experience.

Dunedin lawyer Ben Nevell has launched a series of eGuides for people with no other financial choice but to represent themselves in court.

Nevell was inspired by the rising number of "self-represented litigants" arguing their own cases.

There's growing concern about the issue since the Government moved in 2012 to make civil aid "sustainable" by making it harder for people to get it.

A sleepless night worrying about people arguing their own cases in court inspired lawyer Ben Nevell to pen DIY guides to ...
BEN NEVELL/SUPPLIED

A sleepless night worrying about people arguing their own cases in court inspired lawyer Ben Nevell to pen DIY guides to help them.

Nevell says: "There are a lot of people falling through the gaps."

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"The income threshold for a single person is something like $22,000. You basically have to be a beneficiary to get civil legal aid," he says.

And when people need to head to court for civil, it is often because they have lost either money, or an income, which often results in them being unable to pay lawyers to take a case that may last months, or years.

Nevell says: "Often people aren't able to get justice because they lack money and are up against organisations that can use the process to grind them down."

He was first inspired to write guides on how to self-represent when the Family Court was reformed two years' ago in a bid to reduce the role played by lawyers.

The idea came as he lay awake in bed fretting about how people could be helped to prepare for the ordeal of representing themselves in court, which he says is an intimidating environment for the ordinary person, and one where it can seem people are speaking a different language from everyday English.

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"I saw it as an opportunity to provide something that would help people to go through the system," he says. "There is nothing out there for self-litigants."

That's not strictly true, Nevell admits. There is some material produced by the Ministry of Justice, but he thinks it is "cursory".

"I wouldn't have written the books if I thought that what the Ministry of Justice had done was sufficient."

The guides are not just about process and what to expect when stepping into court, but also how to formulate your "theory of the case", lawyers' jargon for the key legal position to be argued in court.

So far Nevell has done guides to representing yourself in the Employment Court and the family Court.

Others on ACC, fighting bankruptcy, and debt collection would be his next guides, but only if there is demand.

He's selling the books through the Legalebooks.nz website.

​Nevell believes the country does not value access to civil justice enough, especially in contrast to the focus on access to criminal justice. "People just think it is about losing a bit of money not their liberty, but people lose more than money when they miss out on civil justice," he says.

Someone wrongfully deprived of their job, for example, may lose self-esteem, their sense of identity, and even physical wellbeing. It's common for people seeking legal aid to also be seeking anti-depressants from their doctors, he says.

Figures from the Law Society show in the year to 30 June 2015, total legal aid payments were $130million, a long way behind the total payments made in the year to 30 June 2012, when they totalled $148m. Civil legal aid was down from $6.7m in 2008 to just $5.5m.

 - Stuff

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