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Lawyers And Law Students Ensure Viability Of Community Law

Media Release 19 July 2012

Lawyers And Law Students Ensure Viability Of Community Law

Lawyers and law students have given, at a conservative estimate, almost $1.8 million dollars worth of services free of charge in the past year to help people who cant afford to pay for lawyers according to a new study just released by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER).

Community Law Centres o Aotearoa (CLCA), the national organisation for New Zealand’s 25 community law centres, commissioned NZIER to produce a cost benefit analysis of its services. CLCA Chair Cameron Madgwick says the organisation wanted better economic data to enable it to defend the current model of Community Law as the Government seeks to introduce contestable funding.

“It is great to be able to have this solid quantitative data available for the first time in New Zealand,” Mr Madgwick says. “What the NZIER report makes clear is that Community Law ensures that justice is available for all regardless of their income and that it relies on the voluntary support it gets from the legal profession,” Mr Madgwick says.

That voluntary support from the profession amounted to 20,562 hours in the July 2010 to June 2011 year. Taking as a conservative estimate the Ministry of Justice legal aid rate for a level 1 lawyer in a non-jury trail and law clerk rates for students, NZIER calculates that qualified volunteer lawyers contributed $955,129 and law students $732,982.

NZIER also notes that paid staff in Community Law Centres (CLCs) are mostly qualified lawyers who are willing to provide their services at a cost below what they would be paid as private lawyers. Additionally most CLCs have networks of more senior lawyers who are prepared to provide pro-bono legal services which represent another $108,544. Non-legal volunteers also make a significant contribution assisting with administration.

It is a model, NZIER says, which is reliant on staff and community support built up over time and it warns it is important that changes to the way that centres operate don’t threaten that support, with potential consequences for the viability of the low cost model.

NZIER says a conservative view of the value of the CLCs is that, for a total public money cost of $10.97 million, they provide potential access to the justice system for approximately 20 percent of New Zealand households - nearly 326,000 households – if they have a dispute or concern that is not eligible for legal aid. “Māori and Pacific Island households are over-represented in this 20 percent. This suggests that the CLCs provide an important pathway to the justice system for Māori and Pacific Island families.”

The NZIER analysis shows that that the centres deliver $36.23m of benefits just from their casework with clients. This represents a cost-benefit ratio of 1:5.4 for casework services (based on the $6.7m portion of the Government investment of $10.97m which is provided for casework services).

In the 2010-2011 year, the CLCs worked on cases for 49,243 clients. Taking its cost basis as 75% of the average cost of the lowest cost proceedings of the Public Defence Service, which NZIER describes as a ”frugal provider of legal services”, NZIER conservatively estimated that the value of these cases was $36.23 million in that year.

The NZIER report emphasizes that the CLCs deliver a lot of other benefits that cannot be so easily quantified. While casework takes two thirds of staff time, it accounts for only a third of all client interactions. In terms of total services in the 2010-2011 year, over 174,000 hours of legal services were directly provided to over 144,000 clients.

The information and education given to people to help them resolve disputes themselves is likely to provide significant benefits NZIER reports. Research has show that early intervention offered by Community Law type services delivers quicker resolution of disputes and avoids costs to the justice system and flow on to the wider community and other government agencies.

“While we have been unable to quantify these benefits, we can provide some context regarding their potential scale. If the information and education services provided to the 95,000 New Zealanders in 2010/11 caused a one percent cost reduction in the courts system, then the CLCs would have saved approximately $7.3 million dollars.”

These benefits come at no additional cost and only increase the fiscal benefit cost ratio.

Mr. Madgwick, who has worked as a volunteer lawyer at the Wellington Community Law Centre for 15 years since his student days at Victoria University, says working in Community Law is very rewarding and really makes a difference in people’s lives.

“It is great now to be able to put hard numbers alongside our own data and to really be able to quantify both the generous contribution that many lawyers make and the value for money that Community Law services deliver,” he says.

“There can be no doubt that Community Law provides significant value for money and we hope this message gets through to government. It is critical for a civilized and peaceful society that these early intervention legal services are available to those who would otherwise not be able to afford them. This is justice and that is what the law is all about.”

For more about Community Law see www.communitylaw.org.nz


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