Civil/family legal aid
Introduction to civil/family legal aid
What is civil/family legal aid?
Civil/family legal aid is financial help provided by the government to assist with the legal costs of bringing or defending a civil case (for example, taking your boss to the Employment Relations Authority) or a case in the Family Court (for example, defending a claim from your ex-partner under the Property (Relationships) Act).
The Legal Services Act divides all legal cases into “criminal” and “civil”. However, the legal aid administrators use the terms “criminal” 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 “civil/family”.
Who can apply for civil/family legal aid?
Applicants do not necessarily have to be New Zealand citizens or permanent residents to be eligible for civil/family legal aid.
Applicants must be a natural person (rather than a business or a group), apart from some applications before the Waitangi Tribunal.
Note: People under the age of 16 can apply for civil/family legal aid, but they will usually require an adult (over the age of 20 years) to apply on their behalf. The commissioner may take into account the assets of the parents of a civil/family legal aid applicant aged between 16 and 20 who is still living with or being supported by their parents (unless they have a contrary interest in the matter such as family violence proceedings), when considering eligibility and the extent of any repayment.
For which proceedings is civil/family legal aid available?
Civil/family legal aid is available for nearly all civil court proceedings, from the first consultation with a lawyer until the case is decided in court. Legal aid is not available just for getting legal advice. Someone applying for legal aid must be planning to take their case to court, even if they later manage to settle the dispute out of court.
Civil/family legal aid is available for civil proceedings in:
- the District Court (including any hearing for a mental health compulsory treatment order)
- the Family Court (except dissolution of marriage)
- the Youth Court
- the High Court, Court of Appeal, or Supreme Court
- appeals to the Privy Council.
Civil legal aid may also be granted for cases before the:
- Māori Land Court
- Māori Appellate Court
- Employment Relations Authority
- Employment Court
- Waitangi Tribunal
- Social Security Appeal Authority
- Tenancy Tribunal
- Environment Court
- Immigration and Protection Tribunal (if it is a refugee case)
- Human Rights Review Tribunal
- New Zealand Parole Board
- Taxation Review Tribunal
- Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal
- Legal Aid Tribunal
- Environment Court
- Inquests under Part 3 of the Coroner’s Act 2006.
For which proceedings is civil/family legal aid not available?
Civil/family legal aid is not available for:
- dissolution of marriage and civil unions (divorce)
- certain (mainly preliminary) stages of a dispute under the Care of Children Act (see below)
- situations where a lawyer is needed but no court case is involved (for example, making a will)
- situations where there are not good reasons for taking or defending a case
- the Disputes Tribunal
- most immigration matters (except for refugee status issues)
- court cases outside New Zealand
- companies and groups, except in some limited cases, such as class actions and Waitangi Tribunal proceedings
- reviews by Work and Income (except when appealing a review decision to the Social Security Appeal Authority).
Legal aid in Family Court cases about children
The role of lawyers is restricted when people apply to the Family Court for orders to resolve disputes about care of children arrangements or guardianship issues. A lawyer can represent you and appear with you in court only at certain stages of a case (the final court hearing in most parenting order cases) or in certain types of cases (such as urgent cases, or international child abduction). Legal aid is therefore restricted to those situations where you’re allowed a lawyer.
In those situations when you’re not allowed to have a lawyer represent you, you are however allowed to get background help from a lawyer – for example, to help you with your application. A free Family Legal Advice Service has been introduced to provide that kind of background help for people who qualify; other people will need to see their own lawyer for this.
(For more information, see “About the Family Court” in the chapter “Parents, guardians and caregivers”.)