Community Law Centres Face Judgment
New Zealand’s Community Law Centres are engulfed in a shroud of mystery after the Ministry of Justice indicated that it will move to cut down to 10 and 15 Community Law contracts across the country, instead of the current regime of 25 individually funded centres.
Supervising Solicitor Caryl O’Connor told Critic that “we’re not sure... how that is going to be managed.” The Ministry has indicated that it wants to set up an 0800 line that people can call for advice, and O’Connor says that “they are also making some kind of assessment (and we don’t know how) on what services need to be supplied face-to-face across the country.”
The Ministry is expected to release a funding document between late September and early October, and will ask Law Centres to apply to be the provider of these services. “We won’t find out until the end of January whether or not we would be one of those providers,” O’Connor says. Thus far, there is also no indication of how much funding there will be for these providers.
Currently there are six Community Law Centres in the South Island, including two in Dunedin, and it is unknown how many contracts will be supplied across the island under the new scheme. “We don’t think any demographic data that the ministry are currently relying on is the proper base to make such decisions,” O’Connor says, “because the South Island always misses out on those kinds of income- and population-based data gathering exercises. So we’re worried we’ll have to cut services, we’re worried we’ll lose some Law Centres, and we’re worried that others will have to merge.” Further, “the Ngai Tahu Maori Law Centre is under a completely different funding scheme, and currently we haven’t even heard whether they will stay on the map.”
The proposed changes have come to light in the face of an NZIER report, which included a cost-benefit analysis of Law Centres across the country. The report indicated that for an investment of $10.97 million per year, the New Zealand taxpayer is receiving a return of between $36.23 million and $43.53 million by settling disputes before any other resources need to be used. “We’re doing a really good job,” O’Connor affirms.
O’Connor also points out the effect the new scheme will have on students. “If the scope of the organisation is going to be reduced, the opportunity for student input is going to reduce. Although I’d have to say that my ideal would be that the student volunteer-ship would be the last operation standing if everything else went.”