Simpson Grierson’s Shan Wilson is the first dedicated pro bono partner at a New Zealand law firm. She talks to the Herald about increasing legal inequality and promoting access to justice for all.
Our legal aid system is broken and the working poor find it increasingly difficult to get justice – and even the most basic of advice.
These are the concerns of the president of Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa (the New Zealand Law Society), who just last month called on the Government to better invest in the system and ensure all Kiwis have access to justice.
Tiana Epati’s thoughts echoed earlier troubles noted by the country’s Chief Justice and further unease from the bench about the growing number of lay litigants who represent themselves.
Aotearoa is lagging behind comparable countries when addressing justice inequality, and while many New Zealand lawyers do offer their services pro bono, no firm had a dedicated partner for such work before Shan Wilson.
Hers is a role that Simpson Grierson created at the start of 2020 to help non-profit organisations and people disadvantaged in what can be an expensive process, even when it is successful.
“We made the decision to actually step it up another level, we made mine a dedicated partner role for it, not just somebody who was juggling it alongside the usual desk work,” says Wilson.
“I’m the first legal partner in New Zealand for this facilitation of pro bono. I don’t have a team under me; the whole idea of it is that the entire firm has to buy into this, and that they are the team.”
Wilson, who has nearly three decades of experience and was a partner in the firm’s employment law team, says the legal aid system is in dire need of attention.
“We don’t do criminal work because of the nature of our firm, but the civil legal aid system is really in a bad way in New Zealand.
“We are not trying to deliver our pro bono services to the people who would qualify for legal aid. Really, it’s about the working poor of New Zealand who cannot get easy access to legal advice.”
The NZ Law Society commissioned an independent report from Colmar Brunton, which surveyed nearly 3000 lawyers on access to justice.
It was the biggest survey of its kind in this country, and the results last month were startling. It showed 20,000 people have been turned away for legal aid in the past year, many of whom then represented themselves.
More than half of the lawyers also said they weren’t remunerated for 48 per cent of the hours they’d worked on their last legal aid case.
In a column for the Herald, Epati said: “‘Justice for all’ is a concept that’s fast collapsing in Aotearoa because there is no effective way for vulnerable people to obtain justice when in distress. Legal aid, the best protection for people, was failing pre-Covid, but now it is at breaking point.”
Wilson says many people, small businesses and non-profit organisations are reluctant to seek legal advice because of the financial barrier and only find a lawyer “when the crisis and the chaos has happened”.
She says pro bono work needs to be taken away from being a box-ticking exercise and made into something that is ingrained across the culture of a law firm. Work has included helping charities such as Variety, The Period Place, Youthline and E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services for young mums.
The younger generations of lawyers, Wilson says, are excited to give back to the community and get more out of their workplace.
As part of its recent pro bono work, Simpson Grierson also assisted in the successful judicial review to help Afghans associated with the New Zealand Defence Force flee Kabul.
The case saw the High Court rule that the Government’s Covid-19 border closure did not provide reason to refuse visas and also identified further errors in failing to apply humanitarian exceptions.
Wilson says the firm has also helped members of the transgender community who want a declaration of their true sex so they could change their birth certificate.
“If you want to do that, you have to actually file affidavits, evidence and written legal submissions and make your case to the Family Court and a judge decides that for you. So you can imagine that’s a really good example of how the legal system can be expensive, it can be overwhelming.”
Wilson doesn’t know why New Zealand is behind the rest of the developed world but says several areas of the legal profession here are now speaking out about access to legal advice and the increasingly divided justice system.
Simpson Grierson works with Australian law firm Clayton Utz, which Wilson says has had a dedicated pro bono partner for 20 years.
“In Australia, there’s just a really well-built, established integrated model about pro bono being something that lawyers do … to the point that Australian lawyers are expected to do 35 hours of pro bono work a year,” she says.
Pro bono work is not the complete answer, she says, but is one tool to help solve the problem of inequality in the justice system, which could be aided by a better-funded community law centre programme.
“[Australia’s] got really strong community law centres as well, while ours have really struggled to get funding. You see the likes of Australia, England, it’s even through Europe now, America absolutely, just such a build on pro bono.”
Pro bono, Wilson believes, also makes for a better lawyer.
“It’s also really good for them because they’re dealing with people that aren’t sophisticated users of law that their corporate clients might be,” she says. “It’s really widening their experience of how they deliver law and legal advice.”
Corporate law, however, makes up a large part of Simpson Grierson’s pro bono work, with non-profit organisations requiring partnership agreements and intellectual property issues resolved.
“It’s really been an eye-opener for me that we can find ways that we’re helping a whole lot of the not-for-profits and we’re spreading pro bono opportunities across the whole firm,” Wilson says.
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