Auckland Community Law Centre – 40 years of providing access to justice

Auckland Community Law Centre (ACLC) recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, with a function on the ADLS rooftop terrace on Wednesday 25 October 2017.

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As the first community law centre in New Zealand, this milestone also marks 40 years of the community law movement.

“Community law centres trace their provenance to the neighbourhood law movement in the United States in the 1960s,” says Darryn Aitchison, comanager of ACLC. “The concept of locating law offices in deprived communities spread to the United Kingdom [in 1972], and Australia [in 1974], before reaching our shores. The overseas initiatives were characterised by a desire to ensure access to justice to all sections of society regardless of race, culture, gender and means.”

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ADLS’ premises were an appropriate place to stage the celebrations, given the role played by the ADLS Council in backing calls for the original service and supporting the local profession’s vision of establishing ACLC. This support led to a contribution towards pilot funding, which in turn saw the Centre open its doors above a butcher’s shop in June 1977, as the “Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office”.

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The Centre’s meagre budget was stretched a very long way through the careful administration of the fund by ADLS, and the enormous number of volunteer hours provided by its volunteer lawyer members. Over the succeeding years, the Centre was sustained through a number of sources, with milestones along the way including the establishment of the original trust in 1982 (with New Zealand Law Foundation as settlor), ADLS members agreeing to a levy in 1987, and the passage of the Legal Services Act 1993, which led to money being diverted from the Special Fund and formal government contracting.

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From humble beginnings above the butcher’s shop, the story of community law has been a success that can be traced through its steady growth and proliferation. Today, there are:

  • 24 independent community law centres across the country;
  • over 1 million hits annually on the national information website;
  • 53,000 casework clients annually; and
  • an annual return of $50 million in value for a mere $11 million cost.
  • For ACLC in particular, this has been a stellar year, which has included:
  • moving into new modern and professional offices;
  • co-managers Darryn Aitchison and Neil Shaw receiving the Equal Justice Award, in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the New Zealand legal community and being the embodiment of the spirit of equal justice and community service;
  • the Board taking out the “Organisation of the Year” prize at the Women in Governance Awards, in recognition of its outstanding performance in organisational governance and commitment to gender diversity; and
  • ACLC launching a new pilot project aimed at increasing access to justice – the “Litigant in Person Pro Bono Service”.

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“Despite the achievements of ACLC and community law, the place of community law in the justice system has never been settled,” says ACLC Chairperson Jacqueline Lethbridge. “It has been debated and contested since before the ACLC was established.”

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For example, she noted that, prior to the Centre’s initial establishment, parts of the profession were concerned about such law centres competing with private firms and lawyers. Others expressed preferences for competing initiatives, such as a Public Defence service. Others still voiced objections to the fundamental premise of a grass roots initiative, arguing in favour of fully-funded and overhauled justice services.

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Similar arguments persist to this day. “During the current Board’s tenure, ACLC has wrestled with the fall out of Dame Margaret Bazley’s 2009 report,” says Ms Lethbridge. “The report led to changes in the Legal Services Act, transformation of the legal aid sector, and swept community legal services into the reforms.” Those reforms, along with capped funding after the collapse of the special fund, led to policy changes which limited the amount of litigation community law centres could undertake.

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The 40th anniversary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on how far the movement has come and, over the next few months, ACLC will be reflecting on its role within the justice system through a reworking of its strategic plan. This will occur against a backdrop of several threads, including a forthcoming Ministry of Justice (the primary funder of law centres under the Legal Services Act) review of law centre services, and the recently announced law and order priorities in the coalition agreement of our new Government, which include increased funding for law centres.

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Despite the passage of 40 years, ACLC’s original vision remains the same – enabling access to the justice system for all, regardless of race, culture, gender or means. One only has to look at statistics like the increasing incarceration rates for Māori females over the past 30 years, as compared to the general population, to see that this is still an ongoing journey.

A refresh of ACLC’s strategic plan at this juncture, with the benefit of its unique insights into the justice sector, will hopefully ensure ACLC endures for years to come, and is able profoundly and positively to impact access to justice in the future.

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