Lawyers duck legal aid work

In the second of a series on the impact of legal aid reforms, TESS MCCLURE investigates the impact on the family courts and domestic violence victims. Part one examined the impact on the integrity of the justice system, and next week will look at the impact on lawyers.

Women and children fleeing domestic violence are struggling to get protection orders because of a shortage of family law practitioners, advocates say.

Legal aid reforms over the past three years mean many lawyers are choosing to avoid legal aid- funded family law - with dangerous consequences for domestic violence victims.

Community Law Centre manager Paul O'Neill said "even for very serious domestic violence and protection order issues we are finding people frustrated that they can't find a legal aid provider. The practitioners simply aren't there any more."

The situation was particularly pressured in Christchurch, where police and women's refuges reported a rise in domestic violence following the earthquakes.

Solicitor Louise Taylor said she worked with clients seeking protection orders "who say they've phoned up to 40 practitioners and are unable to find someone".

Taylor said there were "absolutely" safety issues for those who couldn't get protection orders fast.

"We know a lot of victims continue to live in an unsafe environment until they can access protection," she said.

Some women could choose to stay in violent situations because they did not have protection orders, or would leave without getting one - "both of which are dangerous situations", she said.

Across the country almost a quarter of funding to the family courts was dropped, from $54,719,000 in 2010 to $41,955,000 last year.

People granted legal aid through Christchurch Family Court dropped a third, from 1826 in 2010 to 1289 in 2013.

In 2012, "fixed fees" were introduced for family court legal aid. The cost-cutting measure introduced reductions to lawyer fees, and time restrictions for cases.

Family legal aid lawyers dropped 27 per cent from 2012 to 2013.

Canterbury Dean of Law Chris Gallavin said finding a family lawyer in Canterbury who used legal aid was "like finding hen's teeth".

But Legal Aid Services general manager Michelle McCreadie said the reduction in family legal aid providers was in line with the reduction in the numbers of family legal aid cases, which had gone down 24 per cent.

She said criteria for granting family legal aid had not changed, but there have been changes in legal representation in Care of Children Act cases - which made up 40 per cent of Family Court work.

Taylor said while the legal aid funding changes did not directly touch legal aid funding for domestic violence, the impact had still been significant.

"The reality is that solicitors who do care of children often also do domestic violence, and so there's fewer practitioners available to do ... protection orders."

O'Neill said the changes pushed family lawyers out of the market.

"Practitioners tend to move into more lucrative commercial conveyance areas and leave the legal aid areas behind."

Aviva operations manager Elaine Lucey said the refuge had specific lawyers they worked with for protection orders, but said the most recent changes to the family courts were "not in the best interests of families experiencing domestic violence".

She said it was possible the drop in family lawyers offering legal aid "offers less choice, and means some excellent family lawyers came out of the system at that time."

A 2014 Law Society survey of 156 law firms found many had "concerns at the overall economic viability of legal aid work".

Family Law Section chairman Allan Cooke said he was "aware of some lawyers who had relinquished their legal aid provider status or kept that status and are doing very little legal aid work, because of the economic reality of running a practice".

But Cooke said there should be "no issue" with domestic violence victims seeking protection orders, and the Law Society was taking steps to ensure community law centres were aware of legal aid lawyers.

Family Justice general manager Linda Biddle said the reforms were aimed at resolving disputes outside of court, where possible.

The Press