Voyager 2021 media awards
WEBSITE OF THE YEAR
APP OF THE YEAR
New Zealand|Politics

'I'd be dead now': Victim says free lawyer saved her life but service scrapped

Natalie Akoorie
By
Natalie Akoorie

Open Justice multimedia journalist, Waikato

Sam was in the throes of reconciling with her abusive, meth-addicted and mentally unwell partner of eight years when their young daughter told a counsellor she'd seen something alarming at home.

Her safety and that of her older sibling and mother was in danger.

The little girl's father had made multiple attempts on his own life. Now it appeared he was fixing to take all of their lives.

It was the revelation Sam needed to spur her into action, and with the help of a women's shelter she found herself at a free drop-in clinic for Family Court legal services one Thursday night in 2019.

The Family Law Advice Clinic (FLAC) in Christchurch's Justice and Emergency Precinct connected her with a lawyer who Sam credits with saving her life.

"Without Charlotte, I'd still be with him and if I was still with him, I'd be dead now."

But after five years the successful pilot programme run by Community Law Canterbury ended because it had stretched the centre's resources to the limit.

Community Law Canterbury was not consulted over the Kaiārahi service before it was announced. Photo / Supplied
Community Law Canterbury was not consulted over the Kaiārahi service before it was announced. Photo / Supplied

Despite positive feedback from the Ministry of Justice, the $50,000 a year programme was not funded.

Six months later in Budget 2020 the Government set aside $25.5 million over four years for a new service designed to help parents and children navigate the Family Court.

Fifty Kaiārahi, or Family Court navigators, based in courts across the country, will support whānau and tamariki through the system but they cannot provide legal services or act as advocates.

Five managers were recruited last April followed by 41 Kaiārahi - five navigators have already resigned since June.

By December 31 the service had cost $2.59m, but it's thought only a handful of people have used it after it wasn't launched until January 5.

The Ministry said Covid-19 restrictions delayed the training of Kaiārahi and the service start date, and the first year involved robust stakeholder consultation to design the service.

However Community Law Centres O Aotearoa, the overarching group for the country's 24 Community Law centres that provide free legal services to the country's lowest income-earners, said it was not consulted.

Lawyers at coalface 'should have been involved'

Professor Mark Henaghan said Kaiārahi, similar to a previous social service in the Family Court that was scrapped in the 2014 reforms, should not come at the cost of other services. Photo / Supplied
Professor Mark Henaghan said Kaiārahi, similar to a previous social service in the Family Court that was scrapped in the 2014 reforms, should not come at the cost of other services. Photo / Supplied

University of Auckland Professor of Law Mark Henaghan said Kaiārahi was an important service but it should not come at the expense of already established, community-based initiatives such as the legal advice drop-in clinic.

He said Community Law should have been consulted.

"They should have been absolutely at the forefront and I hope it's not too late to engage them in it because it seems to me to be essential.

"That's a big mistake because they are the lived experience of the kind of problems that are likely to come to these navigators."

Henaghan knew of the Canterbury drop-in clinic and said it was fundamental Family Court initiatives worked together instead of competing for resources.

"To close the door on a trusted service that people will know about, is absolutely crazy. It's a backward step."

Community Law Canterbury supervising solicitor Louise Taylor said she was never consulted over Kaiārahi.

"I think that's a valuable role but obviously they can't give legal advice and it is a legal system."

Taylor said their programme helped Family Court clients who were overwhelmed with the system and were filing incorrect or incomplete applications which delayed the process.

The pilot involved between five and seven Community Law lawyers, 20 final year university law students and a court registrar, who catered for between 20 and 30 people each week.

This included urgent needs such as protection and care of children orders.

Taylor said the programme was cost-effective and efficient, relieving some of the pressure on a strained Family Court and covering a group of people who had previously struggled through the system on their own, often with poor outcomes.

While Community Law Canterbury saw only 2 per cent of Pasifika clients, at FLAC 20 per cent turned up. For Māori, those figures grew from 8 per cent to 45 per cent.

Taylor said it was frustrating not to receive funding for the pilot, and they were blindsided by the set-up of Kaiārahi.

"I am disappointed and I have expressed this to them (the Ministry) as well, that they didn't ever come to us and say: 'This is what we're thinking? What do you think?'."

She would have liked to have seen the pilot funded so that Kaiārahi and FLAC could work together.

"It could have been a really powerful tool."

Dire need for more legal representation in Family Court

Waitematā Community Law manager Tom Harris has not referred any clients to the new Family Court navigator service yet. Photo / Supplied
Waitematā Community Law manager Tom Harris has not referred any clients to the new Family Court navigator service yet. Photo / Supplied

Waitematā Community Law manager Tom Harris said he was reluctant to refer clients to Kaiārahi because he didn't know enough about the service.

He was concerned if Kaiārahi failed clients referred by Community Law, it could damage the trust built up between those clients and the centre.

Harris also believed there was more urgent need than navigators in the Family Court after Waitematā Community Law was asked by the Court to provide legal representation for whānau who couldn't access legal aid.

Although law changes in July 2020 reversed several of the 2014 reforms and made legal aid available in the early stages of Care of Children matters, as well as increasing remuneration for lawyers for children, Harris said legal aid lawyers for parents were unavailable because of a backlog created by Covid-19 restrictions.

Harris was also unsure about potential crossover with a self-funded pilot at Waitematā, Wellington and Canterbury Community Law centres, using a Māori lawyer and Māori social worker to address Kaupapa Māori needs, which Harris said had already helped combat the over-representation of Māori in the judicial system.

When it first launched at Waitematā the centre helped eight families. In the first year that grew to 135 families, then 240 in the second year and 500 in the third year.

"We ran a pilot to address the unmet legal need for Māori but in our attempt to do that we uncovered that it actually just works with the marginalised, disadvantaged and impoverished.

"We saw a drop in court appearances for Māori, better interactions with the police, more applications for diversion so less youth carrying records for silly things.

"We were stopping babies being uplifted from the hospital - the Kaupapa Māori Service managed to stop three of those in one year. So it had a real positive impact on the community."

Community Law applied for funding for the $100,000 a year per centre service, but was denied.

Kaiārahi one answer to speeding up court process

A Community Law Canterbury weekly free legal advice clinic helping overwhelmed people through the strained Family Court ended after five years because it could not get funding. Photo / 123RF
A Community Law Canterbury weekly free legal advice clinic helping overwhelmed people through the strained Family Court ended after five years because it could not get funding. Photo / 123RF

Kaiārahi is one of 69 Strengthening the Family Court recommendations made in the 2019 Te Korowai Ture ā-Whānau report, written by an independent panel to address the 2014 family justice reforms which contributed to delays in the Court instead of reducing them.

About 60,000 applications are made each year in the Family Court, which deals with marriage break-ups, custody of children and property rights.

Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said the budget to provide Kaiārahi for the 12 months from July last year is $5.5m with $5.2m of that for personnel.

Kaiārahi was not piloted because it was given ongoing funding through Budget 2020, and there was no timeframe yet for its evaluation.

Crafar said success could be based on the number of people considering out-of-court resolution or through whānau having a better understanding of how to access the appropriate support for their circumstances and culture.

It was unclear exactly how many people had used the service because it was "too early" to know.

When asked why a service that did not provide legal representation was established, Crafar said Kaiārahi could guide parties to services within their community that may be able to provide independent legal advice.

Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers said her office still hoped more legal services would be made available to represent children in the future.

"We do believe that wherever possible children should have legal representation, as what's in their interest can be at odds with what the adults in the court want."

Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers said while Kaiārahi are important, her office hoped more legal services would be made available for children in the future. Photo / Supplied
Children's Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers said while Kaiārahi are important, her office hoped more legal services would be made available for children in the future. Photo / Supplied

However she said the establishment of navigators was a valuable step.

She said people needed options to help them make good choices, and frequently whānau facing challenges were not aware of the help at hand.

Victim grateful lawyer hit home seriousness of violent home

Sam doesn't believe Kaiārahi alone can help break the cycle of domestic violence.

"Looking back now, while you're in it you don't really see it but with the help of my lawyer, when she told me statistics and things, the things that he was doing were pretty up there with partners being murdered."

She was concerned to learn the free clinic was no longer operating.

"It's pretty disappointing. I don't think it [Kaiārahi] would break the cycle."

If it wasn't for her lawyer completing the legal paperwork, filing applications for protection and custody orders, Sam believes she would have gone back to her ex.

"It's all good telling someone you need to fill out this form but you don't know what you're writing.

"You kind of get one chance with the courts. And then it would get overwhelming and it would be easy to walk back into the sense of 'everything is sweet, but it's not'."