New Zealand's only specialist law centre for disabled people is vowing it will "not go down without a fight" in a restructuring that also threatens the Youthlaw service.
The Mangere-based Auckland Disability Law Centre yesterday launched an open letter asking Justice Minister Judith Collins to keep funding a specialist face-to-face law service for disabled people, rather than absorbing it into an internet and phone-based national legal advice service.
A draft model to replace the country's 26 community law centres, prepared for a working party meeting in Wellington today, says youth, disabled people and Maori would still need specialist services within the proposed new national service.
But it says: "It is not intended that the specialist service provider will have a face-to-face role with clients in the regions, but rather to support and advise staff who are working in the direct service in the regions."
Disability Law Centre board member Sue Plowman told about 30 people at the launch of the open letter yesterday that many of the 2000 disabled clients who had used the centre since it opened in 2008 visited in person.
"We are not going down without a fight," she said.
Blind Auckland Council community development worker Martine Abel, who chairs the board, said many disabled people either could not physically use the internet, or could not afford it.
"Over half of our community do not have access to the web because of their low socio-economic position," she said. "My computer speaks to me. I have the capacity to do that because I am employed and I see myself as fairly assertive."
Another blind woman, Maria Stevens of Papatoetoe, said she went to the centre with a legal problem that arose when she sold her house a few months ago.
"I tried them first because of my disability. I had to find a lawyer first, and I needed to know what I needed to have before I went to a lawyer," she said.
Wheelchair user Kaeti Rigarlsford said the centre was a key part of a campaign to get disabled people fully covered by minimum-wage law.
IHC education advocate Heather Lear said the centre helped her appeal to the Ministry of Education to get funding for several children needing special support in schools.
But the draft model for the new structure, prepared for a working party of law centre and Justice Ministry officials, proposes diverting part of the community law centres' $11 million annual budget into a new "national information and advice service" accessible only by email and a toll-free phone number.
The model also includes regional boards and managers supervising a network of various kinds of face-to-face services.
"For example, one outlet may be an actual staffed site, another outlet may be defined as a regular clinic, a further outlet may be another agency ... delivering services on behalf of the central hub," the draft says.
Fully staffed outlets would be in low-income areas.
The new structure will take effect from July 1 next year.
FREE LAW CENTRES
* Youthlaw, Auckland.
* Auckland Disability Law, Mangere.
* Parents Information Line, Wellington.
* Ngai Tahu Maori Law Centre, Dunedin.
* 22 local centres from Whangarei to Invercargill.