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May 21, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Welfare Advocacy in the District Court: Of Domestic Violence, Christmas Miracles, and Eight Law Students

There are two centres of vulnerability in New Zealand. One is our public hospitals, the other is our District Courts.

It’s 8:30 in the morning in Wellington District Court, and bedlam is slowly unfolding. A visibly homeless man shakes his leg restlessly while picking at a sore on his face. A father with a Black Power tattooed cheek gently pushes his impossibly fragile daughter in a pram. Outside Courtroom one, a man peers through the window before turning around and muttering, “you better not be snitching”. A duty lawyer exits an interview room, a smartly dressed man in tow, with an anxious look on his face and an amusingly conspicuous designer watch on his wrist. Another homeless man tells a dutylawyer he’s just inherited a million dollars. Three members of Nomads NZ are appearing at 10:00am, their patches draped over their arms and “77” tattoos adorning their middle-aged, strikingly weary faces. Three of their sons are appearing in Palmerston North District Court that day too, 20 years younger but committing the same crimes. A Māori warden asks a client if he needs help to work out who he has to see that morning, to which the man replies, “Don’t matter does it, it’s all just the fuckin Crown”.

Wellington Community Justice Project has been running an advocacy service at District Court for three years. There are roughly eight advocates in all, who volunteer on a fortnightly basis, in two hour shifts. The project started as a response to the identification of an overwhelming need, not for criminal law litigation, nor bail bonds, but for welfare assistance. I would be confident in betting that every single person appearing in the District Court on any given day has an unanswered welfare need that, if addressed, would change their circumstances for the better. Thus it is that the advocates provide guidance and support to clients appearing in the District Court, with anything they need — from filling out legal aid forms, to contacting Women’s Refuge, to getting food parcels, to making WINZ appointments. The advocates report to Leah Davison, the duty lawyer for the court and the duty lawyer supervisor for Wellington and the Hutt Valley. Leah was instrumental in setting up the Special Circumstances Court, a new approach to achieving rehabilitation and meeting identifiable needs. I, along with every other advocate and everyone at the District Court, can vouch that if you are ever in trouble, Leah is the person you want representing you.

Parker, 20, is an advocate. This is his second year of volunteering with Wellington Advocacy. He has made arrangements for a client to go and see Downtown Community Ministry (DCM). DCM has previously dealt with this client. Today they will help him to apply for an ID so his benefit can be reinstated. The client is due to appear again in court, in two weeks time, and on that next date Parker and the client will catch up again. He hopes that the client will have gone to see DCM, and made an appointment with WINZ — but there is only so much a volunteer advocate can do, in the two hour slots when they see clients.

This is what makes advocacy uniquely challenging — we are volunteers, thrust into the lives and miserable circumstances of so many less fortunate people for two hours at a time. Clients are often uncooperative, suspicious, and angry. And they have every right to be. They have been institutionalised, profiled, abused in every way, and convinced they have no place in society. Trying to help people like this could take two decades, not two hours.

Which is what makes the positive outcomes even better. Leading up to Christmas, Liv, 20, dealt with a client who was in the cells for a breach of supervision. She breached her supervision because her supervision was on the South Coast. She was living in Porirua, in a caravan on the lawn of her partner’s house, and couldn’t afford the bus fare to travel one and a half hours to Island Bay. Her partner occasionally gave her food, when she “deserved it.” She had received a food parcel from DCM, but had given it to an old man who had missed out. She was a mother with five kids, all under 14. She was on the single parent benefit and was paying over $100 a week in bus fares. She wanted to send her kids to a school with a uniform so they could be equal to the other kids, and wouldn’t feel inadequate because she couldn’t afford to get them new clothes. A uniform seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But sending her children to a school with a uniform was costing a third of her benefit. To her, it was worth it. Liv helped her work out her finances. In addition to the large expenses involved in raising five children, she had several fines to pay. Each week she had no money left and there was nothing they could do to change that. After talking to a kindly person at the Ministry of Justice, they were able to get the client’s fines readjusted over the Christmas period to pay less. This meant she was able to afford to buy her children presents. Again, something small, something many of us would take for granted. But I challenge you to find a more deserving case for a Christmas miracle.

Of course, there are bad outcomes as well. Looking through the bars at someone in a cell is the story of so many mini failures. I spoke to a client in the cells, a young mother with a child barely two weeks old. The child’s father was also in the cells. He spoke of the baby in awed tones. She was beautiful. But when I spoke to the mother, she told me this was her 11th child. Well, actually her 14th, if you count the miscarriages. But this was her first birth where she was “black and blue”, because her husband had beaten her beforehand. The enormity of the sadness in that cell was unbearable. Grief, so leviathan-like and multifaceted in its complexities it was almost shapeless. There was renewed anger, at the fact that her circumstances had somehow deteriorated further; her partner had done this to her. There was abject sadness, about 14 beautiful children, but only 11 alive. There was a resignation to her circumstances — this wasn’t her first time in the cells and neither was it her partner’s — they were both on a first name basis with the duty lawyer.

I didn’t attend court after the visit to find out what happened to the woman or her partner. I was yet another bystander, to a life lived among bereaved ruins. I will never find out unless she appears in court again, sits in the cells again. And inevitably, there will be yet another distressing event that lands her there. I doubt I would be capable enough to begin to understand her circumstance, let alone begin to help her.

They write books about what becomes of the broken hearted. But most of the time we do not get to find out. The year is 2018. You would think that the link between socioeconomic deprivation, need, and crime would be easily identified, well publicised, and the benefactor of a large amount of Government funding. After all, if you want to improve society, vulnerability is a good place to focus. But of the two areas of vulnerability in New Zealand, the hospitals and the district courts, public health receives a large amount of funding, while the district court does not. Perhaps this is because it is too difficult — healing disease and wounds is more simple than attempting to heal a multitude of broken souls. And it’s unrealistic to think that a life can be healed with a quick fix, set with a cast like a broken arm or the pain relieved with a medication prescription. But we have to start somewhere.

Liv said that New Zealand needs to take responsibility for why people are appearing in our district courts. These people are not bank robbers, white collar criminals, or drug kingpins. They are women who have stolen a $10 t-shirt and two tins of baked beans because they have two kids to feed but couldn’t get a benefit because they didn’t have an ID because they can’t drive and they’ll never be able to afford a car so why have a driver’s license? I wonder what the heroes over at Sensible Sentencing, who campaign for tougher penalties, would say about punishing a woman for stealing $11.60 worth of goods. The next time you see a Stuff article about just another person sentenced for just another crime, I invite you to consider what you would do in their position, in their battered shoes, with the weight of a lifetime’s worth of failures pulling you down.

Two years of volunteering has made it abundantly clear that the offending at District Court is never a question of choice. Spend half an hour in the Court and this becomes obvious. If you’re in the position that all of the clients find themselves in, you don’t see the choice. Or, the choice is not made available to you. Some people can make good decisions time and time again under consistent unrelenting pressure. But 99% of us don’t. And which would you be part of — the 99% or the 1%?

It is a tough pill to swallow, but any help or support provided at this stage of a person’s life is the epitome of the “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” adage. Liv said that there’s an overwhelming link between offending and not meeting a person’s needs. In order to get the ambulance to the top of the cliff, we need to rethink how and when we intervene in people’s lives. If student volunteers can do it, imagine what mandated government support workers could accomplish. This starts with recognising vulnerability in families and addressing their needs. The work of the advocates, from organising a WINZ appointment, to referring a client to Literacy Aotearoa, shows that small things can have a massive effect in people’s lives. For some of us who are privileged, we have family and friends that are able to provide those small things for us. What would happen for those who are less fortunate if they too had people doing those small things, every day?

The advocates are doing excellent work and making a tangible difference in the lives of those that they work with. The project is still young — it can only go from strength to strength as it grows in experience and reputation. But the advocates are only seeing the outcomes they can address in Wellington Central. They have a little red book full of outcomes, full of snapshots of lives laid bare in 2 hours. Wellington Central is lucky — we have many community programmes that are easily accessed, with staff who are willing to help clients. For example, it is startling to realise that many of the clients are illiterate. Liv dealt with a client who had worked manual labour jobs all his life, and as an inevitable consequence had a ruined back. He was 40, could not read or write, and spoke broken English. Liv was able to refer him to Literacy Aotearoa, who operate out of Central Wellington. When I was younger, my kapa haka leader had never been to school. He could speak English, but not write it. There are a multitude of people in the regions with simple needs that may never be addressed.

The project is not big enough yet to be expanded, even within Wellington, to the Hutt or Porirua District Courts. The Hutt is said to be far worse, with drug offences and gang violence out of control. The courts of Gisborne, Rotorua, Taranaki — literally any region — are an unseen, frightening story yet to be dealt with. There are a multitude of offences relating to a multitude of needs around the Country’s District Courts. Here in Central Wellington, we have evidence of problems. We have evidence of solutions that can work, implemented by a small team of students with a lot of love in their hearts. And there’s no reason that this can’t work all over the country.

At the time of writing, Special Circumstances Court is growing in use and in the number of clients appearing in front of it. To qualify for Special Circumstances, the client has to admit guilt for their offence. They cannot be charged with anything serious, like sexual offending or high end violence. They must be homeless, have an identifiable need, and want help with this need. Needs range from addiction and mental illness, through to accommodation and benefits. Special Circumstances demonstrates how previously unconnected support services can be coordinated together to provide a network of support for clients. It also proves how clients have a wide variety of needs that contribute to their offending. It is heartening to hear the rapport between judges and clients — a genuine interest is taken in the people who appear before the bench.

The Court of course has its own issues. It is frustrating that it is a “special” court, when this sort of initiative should have been established years ago and should now be the norm. Inevitably, some clients revert back to offending. But overall, it demonstrates that with the right support, the cycle of offending and reoffending can be broken.

It’s 8:30 in the District Court. A solo mother of five has found a way to make ends meet for the foreseeable future. Her circumstances may not have drastically improved, and may not improve for some time. But for now, she can feed her kids and send them to school, and afford a Christmas present. A student volunteer with the Welfare Advocacy Service will help a client to reapply for a benefit, and Salvation Army will give her bus money to reach her appointment. A man in his 40s will attempt to change his life: He will begin to learn to read. Another man will appear via AudioVisualLink (AVL) from Rimutaka; he will be deemed ineligible for parole after slamming another inmate’s head in a door.

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. It is shamefully inevitable that to find all of these not easily mended people, one need only duck their head into 49 Ballance St and submit to a security check at the door. But centres of vulnerability are also centres of innovation, creativity, and change. Welfare advocacy is full of creatives; dreamers who hope to see a place for the lowliest amongst us beyond gangs, jails, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Optimistic? Yes. Achievable? That depends largely on the circumstances of the client in question — something that is by and large, beyond their control. But after two hours of contact, at least the advocates can attempt to leave these people in a better situation than they were before.

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