Nelson helps in legal aid shortage

An "acute" shortage of family legal aid lawyers in Blenheim means taxpayers are funding Nelson lawyers' travel to the town to help out.

Nelson lawyers taking on cases in Blenheim said they had enough work in Nelson and were only taking on the extra work in Blenheim to assist legal aid.

In response to questions from the Nelson Mail, the Ministry of Justice said there were eight Blenheim lawyers undertaking family legal aid cases.

It said two Nelson lawyers were helping out; one had four cases and the other only one client in Blenheim.

However, an informal survey of Nelson and Blenheim lawyers shows the situation is a lot more desperate than the statistics show.

The number of Blenheim lawyers taking on cases was as low as three or zero, with clients referred to Nelson to get lawyers.

A lot more than three Nelson lawyers said they had family legal aid clients in Blenheim.

Steven Zindel, of Zindels Lawyers, said three lawyers in his firm alone, including himself, travelled to Blenheim to do family legal aid work.

He said lawyers were being reimbursed for travel and accommodation in Blenheim.

He believed the family legal aid system was breaking down in Blenheim, and said the constant battle in bureaucracy and paperwork involved in family legal aid was part of the problem.

There was also more lucrative commercial law work available in Blenheim.

The situation in Nelson was not as bad, although it could be difficult to find lawyers for domestic violence or care and protection work.

Zindels lawyer Sarah McGovern said she went to Blenheim regularly and received "quite a few calls" from clients in Blenheim who could not get a family legal aid lawyer.

She was only aware of three Blenheim lawyers taking on family legal aid.

Ms McGovern said she also had calls from Women's Refuge saying their clients could not get lawyers and she was rung by a community law service with the same problem.

She had enough work in Nelson and it was frustrating to have to travel to Blenheim as it was time consuming because she was unable to drive and had to go by bus.

It was also inefficient and difficult dealing with clients in Blenheim as she had to do it over the phone or travel to Blenheim for meetings.

Getting documents signed and filed in the Blenheim Court was also a headache from Nelson.

The shortage of family legal aid lawyers comes as the Government is reviewing the Family Court in a bid to cut costs.

The review has been criticised with lawyers and counsellors warning proposed changes place children and lower income people at risk.

Sara Gracia, of Nelson firm Glasgow Harley, said she had clients call from Blenheim all the time.

She had suggested that the ministry might fund her and another Nelson lawyer to regularly spend a day in Blenheim, to enable them to take instructions and save money.

Nelson lawyer Michelle Duggan said she was rung once a month on average from someone in Blenheim asking for family legal aid.

Nelson lawyer Fiona Emery said she was working with three clients in Marlborough.

Other lawyers said they had inquiries from people in Blenheim unable to get lawyers for family legal aid.

Legal Aid Services acting director Neil Cooper said two lawyers in Nelson had volunteered to help with the shortage in Blenheim.

At least three other Nelson-based lawyers had also indicated they are willing to help if needed.

One Nelson lawyer had four Blenheim-based legal aid cases, while the other one had one case in Blenheim.

Nelson lawyers who travelled to Blenheim to undertake casework were reimbursed for travel.

Mr Cooper said the ministry monitored the availability of legal aid lawyers across the country.

The number of lawyers taking on legal aid work could fall from time to time outside the main centres where smaller communities may mean lawyers were prone to conflicts of interest, for example, when several parties from one family may each require independent legal representation.

There were 32 family legal aid lawyers working in Nelson, the ministry said.

The Nelson Mail