9 Sep 2016

Loss of relationships, knowledge through legal aid closures

11:29 am on 9 September 2016

Plans to close six of the eight legal aid offices around the country are being criticised by the Criminal Bar Association.

The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that offices in Waitakere, Napier, Christchurch, Manukau, New Plymouth and Rotorua will shut in the first half of next year, and operations will instead be based in Wellington and Takapuna.

It said the changes would affect 72 full time staff, but under the new system 69 new full-time positions will be established.

New Zealand Coat of Arms

Six of the eight legal aid offices are to close. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Criminal Bar Association president Noel Sainsbury said he was disappointed by the move, and the offices should stay open.

"These smaller offices, which employ locally, are being shut down, presumably to save some sort money, but it's difficult to see where the sensible savings are.

"They're still going to have to have the staff dealing with this and it means they have to rent space in Auckland and Wellington, which I can't help but feel would be more expensive than in the provinces. It's difficult to see how these fantastic employers will be able to move to the larger and more expensive cities," he said.

Mr Sainsbury said the move would also have an impact on people in need of legal aid.

"The advantage of these local offices, is they get to know the local lawyers. They know how to get hold of them or if there's an urgent assignment, say someone needs to get a bail application heard and they need a lawyer appointed, they know the people to ring and speak to and that detailed knowledge is incredibly important," he said.

Mr Sainsbury said there was a lot to be said for the personal relationships that built up within smaller offices, providing a service to a particular location.

"What this now means is that legal aid offices, who would have had some understanding of these clients, and understood there were issues, such as mental health or addiction and that particular lawyers could deal with them well, and they could feed them towards those lawyers, you lose that, so they're just another cog in the machine, they just get processed through."

Cost reduction not behind closures - Ministry of Justice

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the changes were aimed at improving the way legal aid operated.

"We are changing the way we administer the legal aid granting and debt functions by consolidating our operations from eight offices to two offices to improve the way we work. The change has not been driven by the need to reduce costs.

"The number of full-time equivalent positions is only being reduced by three from 72 to 69, and we will be retaining many highly qualified staff with the introduction of a new career pathway. This change will position the Ministry well to adopt new technologies in the future."

The statement said the change was because consolidating operations was more efficient and ensured a more consistent national service.

"Our experience is that the vast majority of people who interact with legal aid granting officers do so by email or over the telephone. We closed three legal aid offices in Dunedin, Whangarei and Hamilton last year (2015) without any impact on services to our customers."