In the last year, 24 community law centres across the country have given over 150,000 hours of legal advice and assistance to 48,527 people who could not otherwise access or afford it. Meanwhile, a million people a year access the Community Law Manual at communitylaw.org.nz, obtaining information and educating themselves about their rights in our legal system.
They also provide communities with invaluable legal education services, assist individuals and community organisations with writing submissions and lobbying the government, and refer people to lawyers in the community with the skills to solve their problems: all services not represented in the Ministry’s statistics above. What’s most impressive, though, is that the Centres have managed to remain a valuable resource despite operating on an increasingly slender shoestring.
Community Law operates nationally on a budget of $11 million a year, and is supported by over 1200 volunteers a year. The vast majority of these volunteers are lawyers going above and beyond their regular services, contributing their time and knowledge so that people using community law services receive high quality legal advice. However, that budget hasn’t shifted since 2008, not even to accommodate for inflation or movements in the consumer price index. Consequently, Community Law has seen an 11.14% loss of purchasing power since 2008 – that is, a practical loss of $1.22 million due to static funding. Further, this funding is only guaranteed until June 2016, exacerbating Community Law’s precarious position.
In January, Community Law CEO Liz Tennet told Radio New Zealand that, without adjustments to the community law centre budget to keep pace with inflation and Consumer Price Index movements, it will be “increasingly difficult for us to supply the services that we are required to supply.”
New Zealand’s community law centres are working admirably within the constraints of their budgets, providing essential legal advice to people who have often found themselves in immensely stressful and intimidating situations. We should be supporting their phenomenal, essential work as much as we can.