The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that 6 of the 8 legal aid offices in New Zealand will close early next year, including the Christchurch branch, the only office left in the South Island. The process will be centralised in Auckland and Takapuna, something widely criticised by many in the legal profession and by the Criminal bar Association.
The Dunedin legal aid office closed in November 2014, and despite a Ministry of Justice spokesperson saying it has not had “any impact on services to our customers", Caryl O’Connor, Managing Solicitor of Community Law Dunedin says it’s put an extra strain on the system locally. “It’s another loss of a go-to person in the community, someone you can sit down and talk to” she said.
“It’s passing the cost on to duty solicitors to fill in forms for criminal aid and send them off to Wellington, people who are busy with remands, plea bargains and bails and being forced to rush to process”.
Because Legal Aid can no longer be applied for in person, applicants must fill out the forms before sending them away to Wellington. The forms require a lot of technical information which often require some expertise to obtain, meaning that people who are unable to acquire a lawyer often miss out useful information, particularly related to addiction and mental health issues, not to mention mistake make due to literacy and numeracy problems. Digital literacy and access to a computer has also posed a major problem to those seeking aid.
O’Connor also makes the point that the closure of legal aid offices has a directly adverse effect on Maori communities, saying “there’s major cultural implications here, it’s traditional in the Maori community to sit down and talk, consult, rather than have a one-off meeting. It’s going to disadvantage Maori in the justice system, and given the statistics you would think our priority should be to enable, not discourage”