Low threshold for legal aid and internet self-diagnosis culture encourage litigants to represent themselves.

More people are choosing to represent themselves in court, possibly because of the digital self-help phenomenon, the secretary for justice says.

That view has been supported by the NZ Law Society, which says trials have had to be aborted because of unrepresented litigants saying the wrong thing.

President Chris Moore said a number of factors were at play, including the availability of legal aid, but the internet had made the law more accessible.

"Unfortunately this does not assist in establishing the relevant and applicable law, which is often an indigestible wad of information."

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The Chief High Court Judge, Justice Helen Winkelmann, recently sounded a warning over unrepresented litigants, saying they were a serious challenge to the civil justice system.

Labour believes the number of people going it alone in court shows that the income limit for legal aid is too low. Its politicians questioned Andrew Bridgman, chief executive of the Ministry of Justice, at a select committee meeting last week.

Mr Bridgman said most countries faced the challenge of people representing themselves.

"There are probably a number of reasons for that - it's no different from increasingly people looking up Google, and deciding that they will look up Google doctor and diagnose what their health problem is."

Labour's justice spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, drew the meeting's attention to a recent speech by Justice Winkelmann.

In it, Justice Winkelmann noted that civil legal aid funding dropped from $60 million in 2010-11 to $49.4 million in 2013-14, and that the financial threshold for legal aid was "very low" at $22,366 gross annual income.

Labour's justice spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, drew the meeting's attention to a recent speech by Justice Winkelmann. Photo / NZME.
Labour's justice spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, drew the meeting's attention to a recent speech by Justice Winkelmann. Photo / NZME.

International studies found that the most consistent reason for not having a lawyer was lack of money, Justice Winkelmann said.

Elizabeth Tennet, chief executive of Community Law Centres o Aotearoa, said unrepresented litigants simply could not afford a lawyer.

The ministry only recently started recording unrepresented litigants, and when more complete data is captured will analyse trends.

"At the moment what we do know is there are much more meaningful and immediate ways that we can help people get through the system more quickly," Mr Bridgman said.

"Rostering and scheduling is a way that we can make a big impact, working more closely with Corrections ... working more closely with the legal bar."

Ms Ardern told the Herald that Labour was concerned that not enough was being done to address the issue. "It's pretty tough to Google your way through our justice system- and I think the comments from Justice Winkelmann reflect that."

A spokesman for Justice Minister Amy Adams said she was returning from overseas and not available for comment.

Tony Fisher, general manager of district courts for the Ministry of Justice, said self-representation was more common in the civil, family and appellate jurisdictions, where stricter tests for legal aid apply.

"It is far less common in the criminal courts, especially when the charges are serious because legal aid is normally available."

The allegations

• NZ Law Society, Community Law Centres o Aotearoa, and Chief High Court Judge Justice Helen Winkelmann say more people are representing themselves in court.

• This could be linked to the same self-help phenomenon that leads to people to go online to diagnose medical problems, the secretary for justice says.

• People cannot afford a lawyer and legal aid limits should be adjusted, Labour argues.