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Leadership and collaboration key to strengthening legal advice sector

Tuesday 15 November 2022 11:07am

Coherent online legal information and tools, paired with access to one-to-one services are needed to help alleviate the negative impacts of unresolved legal problems on people’s lives, a new University of Otago report argues.

Bridgette Toy-Cronin image
Bridgette Toy-Cronin

Funded by the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation, Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin and Dr Kayla Stewart, of Otago’s Civil Justice Centre, set out to find the most common legal problems New Zealanders sought help for, and what kind of assistance they needed to move towards solving them.

“Many people struggle to get equitable access to justice in New Zealand. In order to address the issue and find practical solutions, we need to gain better understanding of legal need,” Dr Toy-Cronin says.

Between 37 and 63 per cent of people experience a legal problem within a two-year period. However, many people often look to solve their problem at a distance from courts and lawyers.

One national service which provides such help is the Citizens Advice Bureau, a generalist community information service whose volunteers advise on a range of issues, including legal problems.

For their study, the report authors pulled a sample of 5617 law-related CAB queries made in 2021.

The most commonly occurring problems were: consumer 17.4 per cent (most frequently relating to issues after buying a used car); employment 12.7 per cent; rented housing 12.6 per cent; wills, trusts, estate, and care arrangements 8.3 per cent; and neighbours 8.2 per cent.

Each of these problem topics have their own specific challenges and the report outlines suggestions for improvements. For example they suggest a free will writing service and better legal information for common neighbourhood disputes.

The authors have also made a range of broad recommendations for creating a strong advice sector.

“Access to justice problems are complex and solutions are often difficult to implement and require long-term investment and efforts. We focused on the ‘low-hanging fruit’, looking instead at ways to strengthen the help which is already provided, or provide new types of assistance.”

The authors’ solutions, aimed at decision makers who fund or design interventions, include:

  • Create a coherent user experience for people seeking help online. This requires cooperation and coordination across government and non-government providers.
  • Online assistance must be paired with access to one-to-one services to ensure equality of access, aid in unpacking of problems behind the problem, and provide a humanising and engagement element.
  • Initial one-to-one services need to be provided by clear entry points so people know where to seek help and not get stuck in a loop of referrals. The entry point needs to be equipped and resourced to provide information, referrals to non-legal services, and identify when expert assistance is required to help the person solve the sub-set of complex legal problems.
  • Creation of more salaried positions to offer one-to-one advice to people facing the most complex of the subset of problems, as these many of these disputes need expert assistance but are very unlikely to qualify for affordable full representation.

CAB’s National Adviser - Legal and Strategic, Sacha Green, says the report provides “significant insights into the common legal issues facing people in Aotearoa”.

“It presents practical and actionable solutions that can beneficially improve access to justice.”

Dr Toy-Cronin says the onus is now on policymakers to implement these solutions.

“Our report provides a framework for thinking about how everyday legal advice can be provided for all, by who and how it can be funded. It is now up to policymakers to grapple with these questions, make decisions and put the funding into place to support them.

“We hope this can mitigate the negative impacts of unresolved legal problems on people’s lives, uphold the rule of law, and foster economic and social development. With strong leadership and sector wide collaboration, there is great potential for making significant strides in improving access to justice in Aotearoa,” she says.

Report details:

Expressed legal need in Aotearoa: From problems to solutions

Bridgette Toy-Cronin and Kayla Stewart

For more information please contact:

Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin
Director Civil Justice Centre
Co-Director Otago Centre for Law and Society
Faculty of Law
University of Otago

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 278 8200