Auckland Community Law Centre - Now in the "heart of the city" but still the same heart

Auckland Community Law Centre
Jacque Lethbridge 

Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office has recently relocated to Anzac Avenue in Auckland CBD and changed its name to “Auckland Community Law Centre”.

Auckland Community Law Centre (ACLC) opened its doors as Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office (GLNLO) in June 1977. It was the first community law centre in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Impetus to establish a law centre in Auckland came from the need to provide access to justice for Maori and Pacific Island communities, which research showed were missing out. The inner city suburb of Grey Lynn was the ideal location in 1977 with its strong and vibrant Maori and Pacific communities.

The original centre was established through community collaboration. It occurred through the support of local community people and local lawyers, including Robert Ludbrook, Bruce Slane, Brian Lynch and Piers Davies. Research was undertaken and a report presented to the Auckland District Law Society (now ADLS) on how and where the community law centre might be set up.

Funding for the law centre, originally established as a pilot, came from both the New Zealand Law Society and the Auckland District Law Society, but also drew on a huge number of volunteer lawyer hours. The road was not always easy – at times the law centre faced closure. It was able to survive with ad hoc yet generous support from a range of organisations, including Auckland City Council. In 1987, members of the Auckland District Law Society agreed at a general meeting to a levy being imposed on all its members.

Time has proven the model to be a huge success. The success of the original organisation led to the establishment of more law centres. There are currently 24 such law centres across New Zealand, run independently either as charitable trusts or incorporated not-for-profit organisations. Each centre has a management committee or board of elected volunteers who plan, govern and promote their centre. Most operate with a significant degree of help from volunteers (such as law students and practising lawyers who give up their spare time).

In 1993, the Legal Services Act 1991 included a statutory provision to make funding available for community law centres from the Lawyers and Conveyancers Special Fund. Successive governments have supported community law centres from budget allocations when the Special Fund has proved insufficient (it has decreased considerably since around 2008, largely due to declines in house sales and interest rates).

The most recent instance of such a “top up” was in April 2013, when the Government confirmed an additional $12.1 million in funding for community law centres for a period of two years, to bridge the ongoing shortfall in community law centres’ funding. At the time, Justice Minister Judith Collins noted that “this money brings to about $36 million the amount the Government has provided as top-up funding for CLCs since 2008”, and also reiterated the “important role [which community law centres have] to play in contributing to access to justice”.

In 2011, a new group of Board members was appointed to (what was then) the GLNLO by the Legal Services Agency, mainly made up of Auckland lawyers, with all Board members providing their services on a voluntary basis. The current trustees of the (re-named) ACLC Board are Jacque Lethbridge (Chairperson), Michael Corry, Anna Fitzgibbon, Kathryn Beck, Bill Hodge and Kathryn Sandford.

ACLC Board Chairperson Ms Lethbridge (a litigation partner at Grove Darlow) says:

“The catalyst for the move into central Auckland was the expiry of the lease in Richmond Road, the premises that had housed GLNLO for many years. The law centre had outgrown these premises some years earlier. In addition, the Board some time ago set in place a wider strategic plan for ACLC to be more accessible to the clients and community it has been serving in the nearly 35 years since the centre was established in the 1970s.”

While the office has always been physically located in Grey Lynn, it has always served a much wider area of the central Auckland community (including the Central Western suburbs, the central city, the Eastern suburbs, Panmure, Glen Innes and the North Shore).

“In addition, the climate for change was right given the new government approach to the funding and administration of community law centres more generally on a national basis. The Board believed it had a responsibility to ensure that the law centre was most effectively serving its community purpose and is as relevant as possible, to the widest number of people as possible,” says Ms Lethbridge.

In implementing this strategy, the Board took into account the demographics of those that access ACLC’s services with particular focus on making it easier for clients to locate and attend the office.

“An office in the central city was an obvious choice,” says Ms Lethbridge. “The centre has been fortunate enough to acquire premises that suit the needs of the law centre (including financial parameters) as well as being close to major transport services that our clients are most likely to use, including bus and train services.”

According to Ms Lethbridge, the change in location prompted the change in name.

“There is much history behind the name of ‘Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office’ and for this reason care was taken to ensure that an appropriate new name was given to the law centre. The reality is the name has not truly represented the breadth of the community that ACLC serves for a number of years, nor reflected the source of voluntary assistance given by lawyers and students primarily located in central Auckland.”

Funding remains a source of challenge for ACLC. Today the challenge is to adjust to a new contracting framework being rolled out for all government contracts in the social sectors. The new contracts measure performance in a new way, and require law centres to report differently to their government funders. The changes flow from the overhaul of the legal aid system precipitated by Dame Margaret Bazley’s 2009 report.

It is unclear whether the outcome of these changes will ultimately mean putting law centre contracts out to open tender, but it is a possibility that ACLC and other law centres are preparing for. The changes also bring a change in focus for community law centres. Government policy now puts much more emphasis on community law centres preventing the escalation of disputes and promoting early resolution wherever possible.

Ms Lethbridge acknowledges the huge contribution made by volunteer lawyers.

“It is important to acknowledge and thank the many lawyers who have over the years contributed to the work of ACLC. Without this support, ACLC simply would not be able to provide the high quality and level of service it does.

“The lion’s share of work of ACLC is carried out by the dedicated and passionate staff led by Neil Shaw, ably assisted by Darryn Atchison, who the Board are privileged to work with and thank for their huge efforts in achieving this new milestone in the organisation’s history.

“I would also particularly like to thank and acknowledge Bell Gully which, through the firm’s Pro Bono and Community Programme, has provided a huge amount of voluntary assistance, mainly through provision of a secondee lawyer for one day every week, but also including IT support (building and maintenance of the website), rebranding and assistance with the recent relocation,” she says.

Rachel Gowing, the Pro Bono Programme Manager at Bell Gully, says that the assistance Bell Gully has been able to provide is a real source of pride for the firm, and the individuals who have been involved have really enjoyed their experiences. Ms Gowing believes that the benefits of the firm’s relationship with the ACLC are very much a two-way street.

There will be an official opening ceremony for the new ACLC office and blessing of the new premises in Anzac Avenue on 29 May 2014.

ACLC’s new address is Level One, Tasman Building, 16-22 Anzac Avenue, Auckland. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, phone: (09) 377 9449. Readers may also be interested in the upcoming ADLS webinar “Pro bono for professionals: A strategic approach to establishing an effective policy and practice”, being held on Tuesday 1 July 2014 (further details on page 6). In true pro bono spirit, ADLS is making this webinar available to all lawyers free of charge. The webinar is being presented by Ralph Simpson (Partner, Bell Gully) and Darryn Aitchison who is a senior solicitor at the ACLC (mentioned above). David McGregor, Barrister and Solicitor, will chair the webinar. The session aims to inspire and energise lawyers to achieve greater satisfaction in their professional lives by becoming involved in pro bono work.

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