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Communtity Law Manual | Legal Aid & other legal help | Your first day in court: Free legal advice from the Duty Lawyer

Criminal cases: Legal Aid and other legal help

Your first day in court: Free legal advice from the Duty Lawyer

Duty Lawyers are available at the courts to give free legal help to people who have been charged with an offence and don’t have their own lawyer.

The Duty Lawyer is usually available only for the first day when you are in court for your case.

Do I have to show that I can’t afford a lawyer before I can use the Duty Lawyer?

No – anyone who doesn’t have their own lawyer can use a Duty Lawyer’s services.

How do I find the Duty Lawyer when I get to the Court?

There may be notices, posters or pamphlets at the courts telling you where to find the Duty Lawyer. If not, ask the court staff or a court volunteer. If you’re in police custody, the Duty Lawyer will see you in the cells.

What can the Duty Lawyer help me with?

When you first talk to them the Duty Lawyer can:

  • explain to you what offence you’re charged with and how serious it is
  • tell you about the usual range of sentences the courts give for the charge
  • tell you if you might have a defence to the charge
  • explain what happens after you plead guilty or not guilty
  • explain about the police diversion scheme and tell you whether you might be able to get diversion (see the chapter “The criminal courts”)
  • help you have your case “remanded” (put off) until you have their own lawyer.

If it’s a minor charge and you decide to plead guilty, the courts might deal with your whole case and sentence you on that one day. In that case the Duty Lawyer can be your lawyer for the day. They can:

  • enter the guilty plea for you
  • tell the judge about your personal situation and your point of view about the offence when the judge is deciding on a sentence for you (this is called making a “plea in mitigation”, see the chapter “The criminal courts”)
  • apply for a suppression order to stop your name and identifying details being made public.

If you decide to plead not guilty to the charge, the Duty Lawyer can:

  • enter your not guilty plea for you
  • apply for bail for you
  • help you apply for Legal Aid to get a lawyer to represent you when you come back to court for trial or sentencing (see the chapter “Legal Aid and other legal help”).

What can’t the Duty Lawyer help me with?

The Duty Lawyer usually can’t represent you after the first day of your case. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you’ll need to apply for Legal Aid for a lawyer to represent you for the rest of your case.

If you want the Duty Lawyer to be your Legal Aid lawyer for your case, you can say this in your application form, and the Legal Aid section may be able to assign that lawyer to you. But Duty Lawyers aren’t allowed to ask you to choose them as your preferred lawyer for Legal Aid.

Helping the Duty Lawyer to help you

    There are some things you can do to make the most of the Duty Lawyer’s services.

    Get there early

    Be at the courts early so that there’s plenty of time to talk with the Duty Lawyer about your case. Usually this will mean getting to the court by 8.30am.

    Put the key information in writing

    Write down and bring with you a statement that explains:

    • what happened, from your point of view. For example, if you’ve been charged with assault after a fight, including things like why and how it started, who got violent first, and whether you were just acting to defend yourself or someone else against being physically hurt.
    • your background and personal situation, including things like your income and living costs, and any things you do for your local community, like coaching children’s sports teams or mentoring younger people on your marae.

Can Duty Lawyers help me with bail applications?

Duty lawyer service: Operational policy (2021)

Duty Lawyers will assist you with straight-forward bail applications if you don’t have a lawyer to represented you unless:

  • it’s a case where the law says it’s up to the defendant to satisfy the judge that they should get bail
  • you are subject to an order under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992 or the Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act 2003
  • further enquiries (such as a bail address) are required before bail will be granted and those enquiries are beyond the resources of the Duty Lawyer.

If they cannot provide further help, the Duty Lawyer will assist you to file an urgent Legal Aid application.

Duty Lawyers have limited time for each person they must help. If you make a bail application and it is refused, you cannot make another unless there is a significant change in your circumstances. Sometimes Duty Lawyers will tell you to wait in custody until you have your own lawyer who can take more time to make your bail application (for bail, see the chapter “The criminal courts”).

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