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Speech: Legal Services Bill: First Reading - Hone Harawira

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Speech: Legal Services Bill: First Reading - Hone Harawira

Legal Services Bill: First Reading, Wednesday 25 August 2010. Hone Harawira, Maori Party Member of Parliament, Te Tai Tokerau

Tomorrow marks the occasion of 20 years since the Bill of Rights landed on the New Zealand judiciary, and that's important because the Bill of Rights, together with the 1993 Human Rights Act - and the nation's founding document, - Te Tiriti o Waitangi - provide the framework for a strong and evolving constitutional discussion, which the Maori Party will proudly lead over the next few years.

Alongside all of that of course, the Maori Party is also proud to claim responsibility for this nation's signing up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well, providing Aotearoa with a set of international benchmarks regarding indigenous people and the law.

And so, as we come to this Legal Services Bill, we do so looking for the same positive reform that Dame Margaret Bazley noted in her report highlighting a range of deficiencies with the legal aid system, including the poor quality of legal aid services and serious service delivery issues.

Dame Margaret made some far-reaching recommendations, including the following:

ensuring aid is available equally across the country, taking into account geographical, social, cultural, and economic factors;

extending social services into the courts to reduce the social deprivation of court users and their families and whanau;

creating a better focus on legal needs for Maori and Pacific peoples and the barriers they face.

Dame Margaret also made the point that:

"if the legal aid system fails Māori, then the system fails altogether".

The stories of delays and deferrals are legendary, and I note here the situation of 19 people caught in the 15 October Police Terrorism Raids on Tuhoe, whose applications for legal aid weren't even looked at by the Legal Services Agency for 4 months.

And all Maori electorate MPs know of people who have made complaints about incompetent and corrupt lawyers, dragging out the legal process to maximise their fees, or recommending clients plead guilty because they are too lazy to do the necessary groundwork to defend their Maori clients properly, so we welcome the proposal in this bill to have lawyers sit competency tests before going on the legal aid roster.

Mind you, I note that comments about bad lawyers at the Manukau Court in particular, need to be balanced alongside the reality of the huge workload and woefully inadequate resources provided for the high numbers of defendants appearing before the Court, and I quote from an email we received just after the Bazley Report was released which said

"There is no doubt that the Manukau Court is known as one of the most difficult courts in the land to work in. This does not mean however that it attracts the worst kind of lawyer. Quite the reverse.

One has to be very dedicated to work in this court. Many of our finest lawyers have worked, and continue to work in this court - Karina Williams and Eddie Paul to name just two".

"I was appalled to find that some of Ms Bazley's findings were based on 'anecdotal evidence.' In common terms this means gossip.

There is so much work in the Manukau Court that I can't see why any lawyer would even need to be 'gaming the system' as she puts it. The majority of hard-working lawyers in the Manukau Court don't need this kind of publicity".

The Maori Party also supports the right of all people to have access to justice - indeed, the denial of that access to justice was one of the main reasons behind Te Hikoi Takutaimoana, the birth of the Maori Party, and the drive to repeal the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act.

One major point of concern I do have though comes from a meeting last year where Maori tribal and legal leaders expressed their concern to the Minister of Justice about the number of lawyers appearing before the Waitangi Tribunal and the consequential loss of tribal control to lawyers acting on their behalf.

It was proposed that the Legal Services Agency and the Waitangi Tribunal develop options that retain the benefit of legal aid but place controls on the number of lawyers, the cost of lawyers and the domination of lawyers over Maori issues.

I note however, that much of that will be blocked by this bill denying legal aid to those negotiating settlements with the crown, which in our view simply adds another problem rather than dealing with the original one.

We do not support proposals to deny legal aid to those negotiating Treaty settlements.

Mr Speaker, my gut feeling is to not support this bill, because although it addresses general issues which impact on Maori, it does little to address the specific needs of Maori, and given the numbers of Maori appearing before the courts, I note that there is nothing in this bill to support the reopening of the Maori Legal Service either.

The Maori Party will support this bill to first reading to allow time for groups and individuals who have a stake in this matter, including Maori legal practitioners, Maori involved in the legal aid process, people who have worked for the Maori Legal Service in the past, Maori who have been ripped off by legal aid koretakes, Maori involved in Treaty settlements, Maori social service providers, and others, to tell select committee what they think of this bill and how they think it might be changed to improve services to Maori in the future.

Our vote beyond first reading will be determined by what we hear through the select committee process.

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