"New Zealand's civil justice system is becoming worryingly inaccessible," Waikato barrister Martin Dillon says.
According to the former Crown prosecutor and dispute resolution lawyer, "The combined effect of the cost of litigation, decreased funding of civil legal aid and other factors collectively have the effect of ordinary New Zealanders missing out on the legal representation they should expect."
In his new book, Civil Litigation for Non-Lawyers – A Plain English Guide to Civil Cases in New Zealand, Dillon seeks to address this gap by offering an in-depth guide to running a civil court case without legal representation.
The title, from legal technology and publishing company The Legal Drive is available in paperback ($44) and Kindle ebook ($11.99) versions, with the latter featuring hyperlinks to online legal resources covered in the text, plus a variety of templates.
His book is "intended to improve access to justice. There is a lot of talk about this
topic but little action. This book is intended to be a concrete step," Dillon says.
The Herald caught up with the author for quickfire Q&A.
Herald: Why was there a need for this book, and who is it aimed at?
Dillon: Access to civil justice can be a challenge, and the justice system can be a bit overwhelming for people who do not have much experience with it. I thought it would be helpful if people had a general overview of legal options, processes and costs.
The book is not a substitute for specific advice from a lawyer about a legal problem, which is recommended. But a general guide that people can refer to whenever they need it should help them better understand advice and place it into context.
Also, the book will be of some use to people who are representing themselves in a dispute. That is not recommended, and possibly a failure of the system, but some people do not have a choice.
What is an example of a common civil litigation action that someone could do themselves?
Lawyers are not allowed to represent people in the Disputes Tribunal. That tribunal can deal with some kinds of disputes about faulty products. I worry that businesses are not held to account under consumer protection legislation, like the Consumer Guarantees Act, because people are reluctant to enforce their rights through legal action. Sometimes people fear what they do not know, so a guide through the process might help.
What are examples of the sort of money you could save?
It can cost over $10,000 to have a lawyer run a civil case all the way through to a hearing in the High Court or District Court. It can often cost much, much more than that, depending on the case.
I have not personally been involved in a civil hearing where a layperson has successfully represented themself. I have helped people who are facing bankruptcy because they acted for themselves and lost, and then had a large costs award against them on top of that.
I have read of cases where a judge has ended up making favourable awards to self-represented litigants. But I could not say whether they might have done even better had they been represented.
Has technology made DIY civil litigation possible, or at least easier?
The internet has made legal information more accessible, but I doubt that has made things any easier for self-represented litigants.
A significant part of a litigation lawyer's value is figuring out which laws apply to a case and how. There is a great deal of legal information that is readily available, but it cannot be put to good use without that skill.
What's an example of an online tool your average punter might not be aware of?
Online legal forms are an example of a good attempt to make things easier for self-represented litigants.
But, unfortunately, I sometimes see people use forms that were intended for other countries and have little meaning in our legal system.
What's an example of when you should stop trying to DIY and call a professional?
I think self-representation should really be a last resort. You might have experience with DIY around the house, or DIY with other things. If you are anything like me, that kind of DIY does not tend to yield the best results.
A court case can often be one of the most important, and stressful, things in someone's life at the time.
So I think most people would prefer to call in a professional in that kind of circumstance, but some cannot afford it or cannot find a lawyer to take their case on a Legal Aid basis.