More than 80 people are gathered in the Western Springs Community Hall to fight back over a Government funding reshuffle that could see the end of the Auckland Disability Law service (see below) from next June.
Among them are people with disabilities, representatives from dozens of organisations, politicians and lawyers, all questioning a Ministry of Justice proposal to reshape community law services and do away with the country's only specialised disability law centre.
Aucklander Jade Farrar is a social media co-ordinator and youth worker for PHAB (PHysically disabled and ABle bodied) and says he and his organisation want the service to stay.
He used Auckland Disability Law (ADL) last year to get information about power of attorney and setting up a family trust.
"ADL acknowledges the complex legal requirements for people with disabilities. There's a whole segment of stuff that really needs addressing on a one-on-one basis with the client and the family and it's a real shame to see an axe hanging over it."
The service's development manager, Nicola Owen, says ADL was set up following recognition by the Legal Services Agency of the unmet legal needs of disabled people.
"The closure would be a huge step backwards. Before we existed, people would have to go into their community law centre for assistance or, often, those with disabilities didn't access help at all. Other law centres don't have the specialist knowledge that we offer."
Ms Owens says legal aid offered by the service includes assistance with benefits, helping tertiary students who have been denied course enrolment because of a disability and employment negotiations.
"We've had quite an increase in employment cases. A number of people are facing losing their jobs so we work with employers to try and help people stay in employment."
"In terms of community advocacy one of our key roles is making sure disabled people get to talk to those who are making decisions about their lives. For example Monday's hui, which gave those who use the service an opportunity to share how proposed cuts would affect them."
A proposed mid-2013 restructure, when all Justice Ministry contracts with community law centres end, means there is uncertainty facing all 26 community law centres around the country. The restructure would mean some of the $11m annual budget would be diverted into a "national information and advice service" accessible only by email or an 0800 number.
Under the new model, the Ministry will purchase two connected tiers of community legal service. The first tier is a legal information service, free to all New Zealanders. The second tier would provide free face-to-face legal information, advice and assistance for people who either can't afford to pay for a lawyer or do not receive legal aid. Fully staffed outlets would be in low-income areas.
The Ministry states the aims of the new framework is to improve access, consistency of service across law centres, quality and range of services which would be more efficient through national co-ordination.
Those at the hui say it's simply cost-cutting and the Government should extend a specialised disability law service throughout the country rather than ditching the only one available.
Dr Huhana Hickey, a wheelchair user and lawyer for ADL, says the Government should use the opportunity of a restructure to provide a service for all New Zealanders with a disability. "No phone line is going to replace
a face-to-face lawyer. It's time the Government woke up and realised that we are just as entitled as able-bodied people to access our rights."
A resolution was passed at the hui calling the Ministry of Justice "to attend a meeting with the Auckland disabled community to consult with us properly about the future of ADL before a decision is made".
AUCKLAND DISABILITY LAW
- Opened May 2008. Operates from the Mangere Community Law Centre.
- Annual Government funding of $225,000 supports a manager, two part-time solicitors, a part-time community worker and a part-time administrator.
- Each year more than 500 people use the casework services and more than 1000 access education and community workshops.
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