Communtity Law Manual | Criminal Courts | Free legal advice when you’re under arrest: The PDLA scheme

Getting legal help: Legal aid and other help schemes

Free legal advice when you're under arrest: The PDLA scheme

If you don't have your own lawyer and the police have arrested or are holding you, you can talk to a lawyer for free under the Police Detention Legal Assistance (PDLA) scheme. You can also talk to a PDLA lawyer in some cases when the police are questioning you.

The police have a list of the names and phone numbers of PDLA lawyers who are available to be contacted day or night, free of charge. These are all experienced criminal lawyers. Ask to see the list.

When can I use the free PDLA lawyer scheme?

You can talk to a PDLA lawyer when:

  • you've been arrested, or
  • you're being held (“detained”) without being arrested (for example, if the police are searching you for drugs or weapons), or
  • the police are questioning you because they suspect you of committing a crime, and they've told you that you have the right to talk to a lawyer.

This might be happening at the police station, in your home, on the street, or anywhere else.

Do I have to show that I can't afford a lawyer?

Free legal advice under the PDLA scheme is available to anyone who doesn't have a lawyer. It doesn't make any different how much money you earn – there's no financial means test.

The police have a list of lawyers on the PDLA scheme. Ask to see the list and then phone one of the lawyers on it.

Note: The police are legally required to tell you about the PDLA service.

Will I get to talk to the PDLA lawyer in person?

Police Detention Legal Assistance Service: Operational Policy, New Zealand Police, June 2016

Usually the PDLA lawyer will talk to you over the phone, not in person.

In some more complicated cases, the lawyer may come to talk to you face-to-face after talking to you on the phone first. In deciding whether they need to see you in person, the lawyer will take into account, for example, if your case is very serious, or if they think you're particularly vulnerable because of your age, level of understanding or some other reason, or if it will be hard for them to get all the information they need over the phone.

According to the police, 95 percent of the time contact with PDLA lawyers is over the phone.

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 23(1)(b); Case: [1993] 3 NZLR 129, (1993) 10 CRNZ 118 (CA)

But whether you talk to the PDLA lawyer over the phone or in person, you have the right to do it in private, without the police listening to you.

Young people and the police

Young people can use the PDLA scheme – there's no minimum age.

Oranga Tamariki Act 1989, ss 215-218

If you're under 18, and the police want to question you about an offence they suspect you've committed, they must first explain that you have:

  • the right to talk to a lawyer, and
  • the right to see a nominated adult, which can be either a parent or another adult of your choice.

You have the right to talk privately with the lawyer and with your nominated adult.

The police must also contact your parents or caregivers to tell them that you're being questioned or have been arrested.

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During the Covid 19 response, most Community Law Centres are still giving free legal support by phone and/or online.

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