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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Wrangling With The Law

The legal system can be terrifying. Many of us have encountered the ‘wrong’ end of the law in the form of police, and a night in the cells can be a huge culture shock. Beyond deciding that one’s situation is bad enough to require legal action, knowing that one then has to organise legal action is an equally terrifying prospect.

Justice is actually much easier for students to organise than it may seem. The legal system in New Zealand is set up so as to avoid lawyers and courts wherever possible—the Disputes Tribunal, the Tenancy Tribunal (relating to renting/flatting), and the Employment Relations Authority. All of these hold minimal fees for the applicant—for example, it costs $20.44 for most applications to the Tenancy Tribunal—so many people are able to access those services.

A common complaint from the legal community is that many students haven’t quite realised that life can be unfair. If it isn’t a formal agreement, you may not have a leg to stand on. If it isn’t explicit, there’s wriggle room, and in interactions with landlords or employers, wriggle room will not be found but rather used as a matter of fact—that’s why it’s there. As a student, the best way to ensure financially viable justice is to ensure that you know your rights from the get-go. Enter into contracts fully aware of the consequences—for example, work out exactly what, when and how purchases are to be paid off, and the overall amount of interest you will be paying. Sit on the phone with a calculator and ask for the bank to confirm your calculations. Put bill paying cut-off dates into your cellphone, including credit cards, and learn about minimum repayments.

In an issue involving a contract—be it tenancy, employment or otherwise—the other party is likely to know what is reasonable, what will be considered a breach of contract, and what is fair. If they don’t, it’s likely that they will back down once they do. Importantly, students especially are better able to find success without taking the matter further, by accepting a healthy locus of control over their lives.

Locus of control is a personality variable related to how much people believe their lives are under their own control. Those who are said to possess internal locus of control believe they determine what happens to them and that they can change or influence the course of events. Others said to have external locus of control feel that the cause and control of events in their lives lie outside their abilities, and attribute what happens to them to the external environment. (Pinto et al, 2004.)

This attitude is even more important when it comes to borrowing and spending, as individuals are more likely to take responsibility for their decisions and think about their future in respect of pressing decisions. Students, especially, while readjusting to a new lifestyle, need to see their actions and responses as those intimately affecting the outcome of a tense legal situation. Prior to reaching the courts, it is all down to being gracious, careful and firm with words. Once it reaches the courts, the opposite occurs—anything said right up until the courtroom will be considered, so agreeing to anything or making unnecessarily harsh demands or expectations will not work in your favour unless they really are terms you are willing to stick to.

What we as students are less likely to have access to is the time or advice that will make claims through the courts worth it. Some governmental advisory phone lines are able to provide general advice, but you are unlikely to receive feedback on your specific claim beyond either “it’s worth following up” or “you probably don’t have a claim”. Often disputes are based on technicalities, and those technicalities are unlikely to be covered in such advisory phone calls, so while they are able to tell you parts of the law, they may still be unhelpful.

So, let’s assume that you have contacted the relevant authorities for advice and you wish to take someone to court. How do you know that it’s all worth it, assuming you have the time to invest into this particular cause? Get legal advice. Despite the fact that you will not need a lawyer for any of the initial courses of action, seeking legal advice will make it less likely that you waste your time. There is the law, and then there is how the law is applied. There are key things to mention when attempting to invoke the law, or show that the law is on your side, and unless you have significant experience in those fields, you might omit key facts completely. For instance, one of the key determiners in whether an individual is still an occupant of a house is whether or not they have keys to the house—when flatting, often keys aren’t handed over in the first place, but if an ex-flatmate is still holding a key, they are likely to still be liable for rent. Would
you have mentioned that if you didn’t know to?

There are also specific aspects of how the law is applied that you are unlikely to know unless you have some form of legal knowledge. Informal conversations with lawyers, or anyone who has been in formal situations, may be helpful, but you need to know details specific to your personal circumstances. In conclusion: spend some time with a lawyer, and try to find out how to get legal advice with the smallest amount of cost to you. When it comes to the law, you need to accept that there is a certain amount of either time or money that you will need to spend, and if you have no money, you better have a whole lot of time to spend on your case.

So, how does one get justice as a student? Really, it is more about knowing the world we live in and trying to avoid situations where we are unable to invoke the law. Part of this is ensuring we don’t get into disputes where we have also breached contracts or broken the law—it’s easy to say that something is unfair before considering how we brought it on ourselves. Weigh up the pros and cons of different courses of action, and get as much legal advice as possible—preferably, before it’s really necessary.

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