Family/civil Legal Aid: For non-criminal cases
Overview of family/civil Legal Aid
Family/civil Legal Aid is financial help provided by the government to assist with the legal costs of applying to the Family Court or responding to someone else’s application, (for example, responding to a claim from your ex-partner under the Property (Relationships) Act) or a civil case (for example, taking your boss to the Employment Relations Authority).
The Legal Services Act divides all legal cases into “criminal” and “civil”. However, the Legal Aid administrators use the terms “criminal” “family/civil” and “civil/family” instead. They divide civil cases into “civil” (meaning non-Family Court civil cases) and “family” (Family Court cases). This chapter uses the term “family/civil”.
You don’t have to be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident to be able to get Legal Aid.
Applicants must be a person (rather than a business or a group), apart from some applications before the Waitangi Tribunal.
Note: If you’re under 16 you can still get family/civil Legal Aid, but you’ll usually need to have an adult (someone 20 or over) apply on your behalf. If you’re 16, 17, 18 or 19, Legal Aid Services can take your parents’ assets into account if you’re still living with them or being supported by them when deciding whether you qualify for Legal Aid and how much you should have to repay.
What kinds of cases is family/civil Legal Aid available for?
You can get Legal Aid for many types of private disputes and other non-criminal problems that will go, or could go, to court. It’s available from the first time you talk to a lawyer until your case is decided in court, including any appeals.
- Family Court cases – Legal Aid is available for family and domestic disputes dealt with by the Family Court, such as –
- matrimonial and relationship property problems – but not divorce (“dissolution”)
- maintenance (financial support)
- disputes to do with care arrangements for children
- applying for a Protection Order or other order under the Family Violence Act 2018 (for information about repayments of Legal Aid in these cases, see “Repaying family/civil Legal Aid” below)
- when Oranga Tamariki apply for a care or Protection Order about your child
- Compulsory Treatment Orders under the mental-health laws.
Legal Aid now available for care of children disputes
New rules came into effect on 1 July 2020 that allow lawyers to represent you at the start of a care of children dispute in the Family Court. Previously, for cases under the Care of Children Act, you were only allowed to have a lawyer represent you and appear with you in court for certain types of cases or for particular stages of your case.
You are also now able to access Legal Aid if you qualify for it.
- Civil cases in the District or High Court – Legal Aid is available for suing someone or being sued in the District or High Court, or otherwise appearing in these courts over a civil dispute, such as –
- recovering a debt
- a breach of contract (for example, a hire-purchase agreement)
- bankruptcy or insolvency.
- Specialist Tribunals – Legal Aid is also available for disputes dealt with by a range of specialist Tribunals specialist courts, such as –
- the Employment Relations Authority
- the Human Rights Review Tribunal
- the Legal Aid Tribunal
- the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal
- the Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal
- the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, if it’s a refugee case
- the Social Security Appeal Authority
- the Tenancy Tribunal
- the Environment Court.
There must be a current or potential court case
You can’t get Legal Aid just for getting advice from a lawyer if you’re not involved in a current or potential court case. You have to be planning to take your case to court, even if you later manage to settle the dispute out of court. Legal Aid is available for mediation to solve disputes that would otherwise have to go to court.
This means that, for example, you can’t get Legal Aid to get a lawyer to draw up a will for you.
What can’t I get family/civil Legal Aid for?
You won’t be able to get Legal Aid for the following types of cases:
- divorce cases (“dissolution” of marriages and civil unions)
- advice from or work by a lawyer that doesn’t involve a problem that could go to court (for example, writing a will for you) – but mediation in a dispute is covered by Legal Aid because there’s a potential for it to go to court if mediation doesn’t work
- the Disputes Tribunal (usually there are no lawyers at Disputes Tribunal hearings)
- most immigration issues (except for refugee status issues)
- court cases outside New Zealand
- companies and groups – except in some special cases, like Waitangi Tribunal cases
- getting Work and Income to review one of their decisions (but Legal Aid is available for appealing a review decision to the Social Security Appeal Authority)
- problems with schools, universities and polytechs (for example, suspension meetings before a school Board of Trustees).