A Wainuiomata single mother who owes the government $1700 for legal aid says interest rates to be applied from March are unfair and could prevent people seeking help.
From March, interest of 8 per cent will be applied to the legal aid debts of about 50,000 people who meet the income threshold.
The single mother of two boys, who does not want to be named, says she received legal aid eight years ago to finance a battle against her abusive and alcoholic ex-husband from whom she sought protection for herself and her children.
She recently received a letter telling her she must pay the money back. To do so before it starts accruing interest will cost about $75 a week, which she cannot afford.
"I can barely keep my head above water. Everything costs money, it's all going up, there's no such things as a pay rise any more ... and now I have to find money to pay legal aid," she said.
"I don't sit at home on the DPB, I work 30 hours a week. I do a lot of community services and I help people ... I teach my children respect and that if you work hard you'll succeed and they just keep seeing me getting kicked in the guts."
The debt had been tied to her house and was to be paid back if she sold it. If she had been told earlier she had to pay it back or be penalised, she says she would have paid $10 a week in order to clear it.
"I'm happy to pay it, just give me a chance," she said.
Labour's justice spokesman Andrew Little said he had heard from several people in similar circumstances.
The family of a man serving a three-year prison sentence must pay back $8000, while a pensioner who sought protection for her grandson, because he was in "grave danger", will also have to pay the money back, plus interest.
"A lot of people have received it because they are in situations where they need legal advice and legal assistance and it's in the public interest that they get it. If they are trying to get out of violent and abusive relationships then it's actually in the interests of us all that they do that."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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