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Watch NZH Local Focus: Napier legal aid lawyers dwindling

By Kaysha Brownlie

Come January 2017, Napier residents will no longer have a local Legal Aid office to visit - just one of the impacts of the dwindling number of lawyers now offering the service.

A New Zealand Law Society report shows a decrease in providers throughout the country, for family, civil and criminal legal aid services.

Over the last five years, the number of lawyers providing family legal aid has dropped 25 per cent, with a 12 per cent decrease in criminal legal aid providers.

Hastings resident Juliet Mawley, who went to court over a marital dispute, said needing legal aid made her feel second rate.

"I felt like I was pushed aside on the scrap heap."

Having friends who had also been through similar disputes, and not needed legal aid, Ms Mawley said her case took considerably longer.

"It was like [the] too hard basket."

Making matters more difficult, Ms Mawley was caring for two children and battling cancer at the same time.

"I found it quite a hard, long, torturous road."

Legal aid is a fixed-fee service which covers specific hours only, but often, the work required outweighs the pay.

Napier lawyer Philip Ross said the local legal aid office had never processed civil legal aid, just family and criminal.

But, he still felt it was a "tragedy" for the people losing their jobs.

"I understand the justification from the Ministry of Justice side of things which is that everything is now dealt with by email."

But, he said some clients still preferred to have the "personal touch" with an office they could actually go to.

Unsure what the solution may be for the decrease in providers, Mr Ross said: "The legal aid system cannot match what would be paid by private clients to a variety of lawyers with different experience. It cannot be expected to do those things. It has to have limits to its scope."

"I think it's fair to say that the legal aid system cannot possibly be an infinite resource. Not everything that people think merits court action can be funded by the legal aid system."

He added that legal aid does give people a right to have a voice in court and an opportunity to defend their case.

He said access to justice for many people was likely reduced with the stretched resources.

And people like Ms Mawley are the ones who may miss out.

- NZ Herald

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