Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Disability and the Law – a New Zealand perspective

When the instigators of Open Justice week posted their plans on Facebook it struck me what a useful project this would be to run in New Zealand. I don’t know where we would find the time or the people, but I do know there’s a real need for people to know what goes on in our courts.
I’m not a lawyer, but I work in the area of disability law in a Community Law Centre. We provide free legal services for disabled people in our region with ‘unmet legal need’ and ‘insufficient means’ to pay for their own lawyer.

We have just about enough money and office space to employ two part time lawyers. The estimated population of disabled people in the region is something like 77,000. About half have personal incomes of less than $20,000 (under £10,000). That makes the potential client base quite large. Our capacity is quite small.

Our lawyers don’t often take cases to court. Court’s a time-consuming business. Our role is usually to assist clients to resolve matters before they need to go to court, or to find a legal aid lawyer, and then help the lawyer to understand the things they need to know.
Disabled people rarely have positive experiences in court. Disability law isn’t compulsory for law students, and in many law schools isn’t even offered. Many lawyers have little or no experience of working with disabled clients. There is no mechanism even for finding out which lawyers have accessible offices. Some lawyers are great, but they are usually overburdened with work as a result.

Being able to choose a lawyer who knows about disability isn’t so much of an issue any more, as the Government recently took away the right to choose your legal aid lawyer except in particular cases. Even if your lawyer knows nothing about disability, the best you can now expect if you request a change of lawyer is that you are issued the next lawyer on the roster, with no guarantee they will be a disability expert either.

There’s often little time to consult with your lawyer anyway. Sometimes clients are lucky if they see their lawyer before they walk into court for their first appearance. As you can imagine, that’s not a great time for your lawyer to find out you needed an interpreter.
Since the start of this week, the Government has implemented a system of fixed fees for legal aid cases. This makes it even less likely that a legal aid lawyer is going to be able to afford to take the time to listen as their client slowly explains what has happened; to organise a sign language interpreter and spend time checking if their client understands what has been said; to get the materials in Braille so their client can read them; to make sure the Police followed the proper protocols when the client was questioned.

It’s getting harder for poor people to access justice. The outcome is that more disabled people and people with mental health issues than ever will be facing criminal convictions, or a lack of access to justice in civil and family court settings. It’s a bad outcome for the individuals involved, and a bad outcome for society.

Nicola Owen is the co-ordinator of Auckland Disablity Law, a free community legal service in the Auckland region of New Zealand  http://www.aucklanddisabilitylaw.org.nz/

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