Pro Bono Law in New Zealand: A Work in Progress

Max Harris - 12th November 2012

Following the celebration of National Pro Bono Week in the UK, this week we will be featuring updates on the state of pro bono legal work around the world. In this piece, Max Harris reflects on the past, present and future of pro bono work in New Zealand.

New Zealand has a strong history of individual lawyers taking on pro bono cases and doing law in the public interest.  In the 1970s, Sir Edmund Thomas (who went on to become a strong liberal judge on the New Zealand Court of Appeal) led pro bono work to raise awareness of apartheid South Africa and to protest New Zealand’s ties with the country.  The current Chief Justice, Sian Elias, helped to spearhead litigation in the 1980s to protect indigenous rights, working with recently-retired Court of Appeal Judge David Baragwanath (now President of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon).  And since the passage of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, there has been further pro bono litigation, particularly on issues of free speech (for example, a flag-burning case, Morse, that was driven by pro bono advocacy) and discrimination.

What New Zealand lacks are structured support networks and funding pools for pro bono lawyering.  To be sure, New Zealand’s three largest law firms (the commercial firms Russell McVeagh, Bell Gully, and Chapman Tripp) all now have formal pro bono teams, with Chapman Tripp being the first of these firms to found a pro bono team in 2003.  Additionally, particular organisations able to source funds (such as the Child Poverty Action Group, the anti-abortion lobby group Right to Life, and Greenpeace) have taken major cases to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court in the last few years, drawing on pro bono legal work.  But the commercial pro bono teams are small by international standards, and the non-governmental organisations taking cases are few in number.  There is, importantly, no single clearing house or public interest law centre (outside of small and under-resourced community law centres) that might match up lawyers with pro bono work.  As a result, pro bono law in New Zealand is patchy and organized in an ad hoc way.

There are some promising developments, which are worth mentioning.  The New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice was set up this year under the auspices of the University of Auckland, with the aim of being ‘a focal point for research, education, community-service, and a range of human rights activities in New Zealand and the wider Asia Pacific region’.  The Centre has been mooted as providing a financial and intellectual base for pro bono human rights litigation in New Zealand.  The New Zealand Human Rights Lawyers’ Association was also established in 2012, by younger lawyers in Auckland, and has similar aims.  These organisations are both in their infancy and focus exclusively on human rights cases.  Amongst younger people and in the criminal justice sphere, the organisation JustSpeak (set up in 2011) has sought to build awareness of criminal justice issues and encourage more lawyers to contribute to criminal justice policy, though it too has a confined mandate.  Lastly, a group loosely calling itself ‘Pro Bono Law New Zealand’ has recently applied for major grants to set up a nationwide network of pro bono lawyers; though at the time of writing, the group was still awaiting a response from potential donors.

It can only be hoped that these encouraging developments continue.  But there is also a need for serious thought to be put into changing the legal framework around pro bono law work in New Zealand.  It is not compulsory for practicing lawyers to do pro bono law work at present.  The New Zealand Attorney-General also suggested in 2010 introducing a condition in government legal contracts for firms providing government legal services to complete a minimum amount of pro bono work; yet nothing has come of that suggestion.

Without changes to the institutional framework, pro bono law in New Zealand will continue to be sustained by altruistic and well-connected individuals.  And that reliance on lawyer-heroes, as opposed to groups of public-spirited lawyers or a properly-established climate of pro bono law, may not prove to be a sustainable way to achieve a pro bono legal culture in New Zealand.

What is needed in New Zealand in the field of pro bono law is leadership from government and the legal community.  Without that leadership, the project of building a truly public-spirited community of lawyers remains a work in progress.

Max is a BCL candidate at Balliol College, University of Oxford and is a former co-chair of the JustSpeak Steering Group.


  1. Beau M says:

    Fantastic post.

    Particularly resonated with the point about moving past reliance on the idea of lawyer-heroes who for all their individual good works can’t be expected as a sustainable source of this kind of pro bono work.

  2. David Mutiso says:

    you are doing great work.

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