New project will extend free legal aid as system comes under strain in South Canterbury

It is hoped that further collaboration will relieve pressure on legal aid in South Canterbury and even lead to a permanent arrangement.

Community Law Canterbury has been running free legal clinics in Timaru for over a decade, sending a representative to South Canterbury for a few hours every two weeks.

But now the Christchurch-based nonprofit is joining Advocacy Anglican Care to extend those hours.

For next year, Community Law Clinics will run fortnightly between 9.30am and 4pm, allowing up to six appointment slots, up from the previous two and a half hours for slots.

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Anglican Care’s social justice advocate, Ruth Swale, will act as an on-the-ground ‘liaison person’ for Community Law.

Swale will greet clients at Timaru Community House and help them meet with the Community Advocate in Christchurch via video conference.

She will draw on her experience as a social justice advocate to offer additional support where possible, referring clients to other agencies or services.

Swale said the collaboration was born with the aim of addressing the legal aid crisis and the lack of quality, free legal aid available.

Last November, South Canterbury legal aid barrister Tim Jackson backed comments by Law Society President Tiana Epati after she said New Zealand’s legal aid system was collapsing .

Jackson said the system is in a “really poor state, and it’s getting worse by the day”, and warned that people in South Canterbury are being left without legal representation.

For now, the Anglican Care and Community Law trial is limited to Ashburton and Timaru, but could have a much wider impact, Swale said.

“Community law treats this as a 12-month pilot program to assess the need for more and seek long-term solutions.

“They are assessing the needs at this stage, because they realize that they are more important than they initially thought.

Community law comments from Anglican Care, and others, showed there was a “real need in Timaru and Ashburton”, Swale said.

Timaru's solicitor, Tim Jackson, expressed concern in November 2021 that residents of South Canterbury were unrepresented due to severe legal aid shortages.  (File photo)

Valentina Bellomo / Stuff

Timaru’s solicitor, Tim Jackson, expressed concern in November 2021 that residents of South Canterbury were unrepresented due to severe legal aid shortages. (File photo)

“We will endeavor to do whatever is necessary to help the client get the job done. For example, someone comes in who has literacy issues, so we step in and help them fill out paperwork and so on.

“It’s up to guests to decide if they’re comfortable having me in the room. We’ve all signed confidentiality agreements, but if they prefer to see the lawyer alone, that’s fine too.

Swale said people can spend up to an hour with the attorney, via Zoom, at the clinics.

However, Swale acknowledged that the extended hours might not help the bottleneck get legal aid representation.

“We have repeated this, we find among our lawyer clients that it is virtually impossible to obtain legal aid.”

Community lawyers can provide information by phone and e-mail on most areas of law; offer specialist advice in specific areas such as family, ACC, tenancy and labor law; perform “limited continuing work” in certain situations and assist with most statutory declarations, certified copies and affidavits.

They cannot give a second opinion when an attorney is already acting for the client; advising landlords, employers or businesses, advising on relationship property, prenuptial agreements or commercial law, carrying out conveyancing work or preparing and executing wills or trusts.

In such situations, they will provide references.

Swale said she expects the issues she deals with will be as varied as her work as an advocate.

‘I’ve been helping advocacy clients consult with community lawyers for some time, and the issues can be very broad, from tenancy issues to employment issues, family disputes and neighborhood disputes.’ ‘

Many of these situations are referred to the Dispute Tribunal, and people may need the help of a lawyer and attorney, Swale said.

The next free law clinic will be February 17, and people should contact Community Law to schedule an appointment.

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