Free legal service staff worried
Staff of Waikato's free legal service face an unsettling 12 months as the Government tenders out its national operations.
The Ministry of Justice is proposing to halve the country's 24 Community Law Centres.
The centres offer free legal advice to the public who could not otherwise afford it to more than 250,000 people nationwide a year.
Hamilton District Community Law Centre Trust Board chairwoman Sue Lane said the proposal had been discussed but nothing had yet been confirmed.
"It's pretty unsettling for us all and as far as we're concerned, in Hamilton district and through our out-reach programmes all throughout the Waikato, not just Hamilton."
The centres currently provide a free face-to-face service to greater Waikato towns reaching Te Kauwhata to the north, Tokoroa, Te Kuiti and Thames-Coromandel.
Mrs Lane, speaking to the Waikato Times before catching a flight to Wellington for the meetings, said community law had built up the service as it was today and it was disappointing to now see it tendered.
"We like to think that we're delivering a service that is relevant to the district and meets the needs that people who can't afford to go to a lawyer or have some problems doing that and we like to think we have been doing a pretty good job."
The centres had also received recognition from the New Zealand Law Society for the work it had done in the past, she said.
"But just at the moment we have no idea of what next year will bring."
Ministry of Justice spokesman Nigel Fyfe said community law centres played an important role.
“However, the variability of services delivered by CLCs and the fact that they don't deliver a service that reaches all vulnerable New Zealanders was a concern expressed by Dame Margaret Bazley in her 2009 report," he said.
“The Government has topped up CLCs' funding with about $24 million since 2009 as a result of their traditional source of funding, the Lawyers and Conveyancers Fund, shrinking due to a slower housing market.
“Ensuring CLCs are strong and robust and able to deliver services to areas of most need is a priority.”
Elizabeth Tennet, chief executive of Community Law Centres of Aotearoa, said executives from each centre met with more than 30 MPs last night to discuss the issue.
"This is a model that has built up over 30 years which is reliant on lawyers volunteering their time to ensure access to justice in their local communities,” Ms Tennet said.
A study released last month, carried out by the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research, showed that for less than $11 million, that is less than .01 per cent of the Ministry of Justice budget, Community Law delivers over $36m of legal services to New Zealanders who could not otherwise afford legal services.
If the 24 contracts were halved, with centres facing merger, it was inevitable many towns would be left without face-to-face services.
"Lawyers are busy people who donate their time where they live and it won't be feasible for them to travel as a volunteer."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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