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Simon Power Speech to Coalition of Community Law Centres

Simon Power Speech to Coalition of Community Law Centres Open Day Wellington

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the staff of the Canterbury Community Law Centre for their dedication, resilience, and hard work following February's devastating earthquake.

With their premises red-stickered, not to mention what they were dealing with at home, they were quick to establish themselves in Recovery Centres, helping people get access to emergency Red Cross grants.

Within days they had also set up outreaches in Ashburton, Timaru, and Greymouth.

I'm pleased the centre has found a temporary base in Riccarton, with the Legal Services Agency contributing an extra $30,000 to help with relocation costs, as well as underwriting the additional cost of the new premises.

Though I'm told there has not been a strong demand for legal advice since February's earthquake, experience from the September one suggests it will take four to six months for the bulk of earthquake-related cases to trickle in.

By December last year the centre was seeing about 60 people a day with employment, family, and tenancy issues, and that continued to rise through to February 22.

It's pleasing to see that since the February earthquake the centre has also been offering advice to help in commercial lease issues for small businesses.

And, the effects of the earthquake on community law centres are not confined to Canterbury, with other centres, most notably Southland and Nelson, also dealing with people who have relocated.

I'd like to thank those of you who have been involved in providing earthquake-related assistance for helping to ensure that access to justice continues in this time of crisis.

More broadly, I'd like to acknowledge the level of work the Coalition of Community Law Centres has provided over the past year.

In 2009/10, you helped more than 220,000 people, including nearly 52,000 for casework services, more than 44,000 for law-related education, and more than 124,000 for the provision of legal information.

Although demand for services was down slightly on the year before, the earthquake will surely have an impact on demand for services in the coming year.

However, as I emphasised when I spoke to your National Hui last September, funding reliability continues to be a source of concern.

I acknowledge that your main source of funding, the Lawyers and Conveyances Special Fund, has suffered in recent years as a result of the slowing housing market and lower interest rates.

But as the Prime Minister has said - at 12.51pm on February 22 the game changed.

That means this year's Budget now has no provision for new spending, meaning everything that needs to be funded will come at the cost of something else.

With that in mind, it's more important than ever that you work to secure additional funding outside of Government.

And it can be done - as shown by the Legal Services Agency recently brokering a pro bono arrangement with DLA Phillips Fox to provide services to the Hutt Valley and Whititeia Community Law Centres.

It's also pleasing to see Bell Gully providing bro bono services to help co-ordinate the responses from the first of two planned consultation papers on setting up a national structure.

However, there's still much room for improvement, with the collective total of pro bono hours for community legal services reaching only $600,000 as at December last year.

Despite funding pressures, I want to re-emphasise that this Government is committed to the long-term viability of community law centres and making your operating environment as easy as possible.

The passage of the Legal Services Bill, which passed into law last Wednesday helps by giving Government and community law centres greater flexibility to negotiate new contracts and to adapt and improve services.

That bill will also see the Ministry of Justice administer the contract between the Government and community law centres with greater flexibility, to the benefit of both parties.

I'm satisfied that the framework established by this bill and recent work completed by the Agency will address the quality issues raised by Dame Margaret Bazley in her review of legal aid in late 2009.

On an operational level, the LSA's review of its national standards for community law centres is expected to be finished by the end of July. Though I do note that to date no community law centre has proposed amendments.

The standards will be used as the benchmark for all LSA-conducted audits. The agency has also been working with the coalition to compile a set of generic policies and procedures to help centres comply with the new standards.

Before I finish, I would like to acknowledge the progress being made to set up a national structure.

I believe such a structure will help you become a stronger voice and increase public awareness of your services.

I encourage all centres to sign up to such a structure so you avoid becoming isolated.

Though there is still much work to be done on this I am reassured by progress to date.

Thank you again for the invitation to speak to you today.

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