Legal aid 

What is legal aid?

The Legal Aid Scheme is a Government fund for providing people with legal help when they cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent them. Legal aid is available for people facing criminal charges, those with a civil legal issue or family dispute, as well as for Waitangi Tribunal claims.

Legal aid complements the free legal representation provided under the Police Detention Legal Assistance (PDLA) scheme and the Duty Lawyer scheme

Legal aid is means-tested (on your income and property) so not everyone is eligible for legal aid. People who do qualify may have to pay a user charge and repay some or all of their legal aid costs.

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What kinds of legal aid are available?

There are two main types of legal aid:

What you have to do to apply for legal aid will depend on whether you need criminal, civil or family legal aid. More information, as well as the application forms, is available from the Ministry of Justice website via the links above.

You can apply for legal aid even if you don't live in New Zealand permanently, or are not a New Zealand citizen.

While some legal aid applicants will have all of their legal fees covered by legal aid, others may be required to pay some or all of their legal aid back. It depends on how much you earn and how much property you own. You will be told the maximum amount you have to repay when you are advised whether your request for legal aid has been approved.

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What types of cases can’t I get legal aid for?

You can't get legal aid for:

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How do I get legal aid for a civil / family matter?

You should apply for legal aid as soon as you have received a summons to go to court.

If you are applying for civil or family legal aid, start by finding a lawyer (see our information on finding a lawyer or check the Ministry of Justice list of legal aid lawyers). Check that the lawyer does legal aid work, and that they are able to represent you. 

You can download the application forms from the Ministry of Justice website, ask your legal aid lawyer for one, or get them from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

You will need to complete the first section of the form which asks for your personal details; your lawyer will need to complete the other section (the 'legal matters section').

If you have questions about this you can call 0800 2 Legal Aid (0800 253 425).

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How do I get legal aid to defend criminal charges made against me?

If you’ve been charged with a criminal offence and can’t afford a lawyer, you should apply for legal aid as soon as you have been charged or receive a summons to go to court - do not wait until your first day in court. You can either:

  • go to the nearest District Court and ask for the duty lawyer to help you apply. If the duty lawyer is not available, a volunteer (e.g. Friends of the Court or Matua Whangai worker) may be available to help or  
  • call 0800 2 Legal Aid (0800 253 425) to speak to a legal aid office or
  • get in touch with your nearest Community Law Centre or Citizens Advice Bureau for assistance.

Bring your court summons when you visit your lawyer (or other person who is helping you to make your legal aid application) - it contains information that is required for completing the application form.

If your application for legal aid is approved, you will get a letter telling you the name of the legal aid lawyer who has been assigned to you. Usually Legal Aid Services will choose a lawyer for you, but if you’ve been charged with a very serious offence you may choose a lawyer to represent you (they have to be approved by the Ministry of Justice).You can choose a lawyer from the Public Defence Service (see the next question) or one in a private practice.

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What is the Public Defence Service?

The Public Defence Service (PDS) is a service funded by the Ministry of Justice.

These are lawyers employed by the Ministry to defend people on criminal charges who are eligible for legal aid. Lawyers employed by the PDS have the same responsibilities as all legal aid lawyers to give you independent advice and act in your best interests.

The Public Defence Service is available in Auckland, North Shore, Waitakere, Manukau, Pukekohe, Papakura, Tauranga, Napier, Hastings, Hamilton, Wellington, Porirua, Hutt Valley, Christchurch, Dunedin) their related High Courts, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

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How much legal aid will I have to repay?

Your application for legal aid will be processed by a Legal Aid office. They will decide whether to approve or decline the application for legal aid and how much you will have to pay back.

This will depend on a number of factors including the estimated cost of the case, your financial circumstances and the likelihood that the case will be determined in your favour.

If your application for civil legal aid is approved for a protection order you will probably not have to repay any of it.

There may be conditions put on your grant of legal aid. If these conditions are not met, or you don’t make your repayments, then your legal aid can be cut off. It can also be withdrawn because of a change in your financial circumstances, or for other reasons.

More information about repaying legal aid is on the Ministry of Justice website.

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My legal aid application was declined, and now I have a $200 lawyer’s fee for helping with the application! Can they do this?

The lawyer is entitled to be paid for the time they spent helping you with your legal aid application.

If your application for legal aid is approved, then the lawyer’s fee for assisting with the application would be included in the fees that they claim back from the Legal Aid scheme. If the application is declined you will have to pay the fee.

So it’s a good idea to do the following:

  • Ask the lawyer in advance how much they will charge if your application for legal aid is declined.
  • to reduce the amount of billable time you spend with the lawyer, complete the personal details section of the application form before you visit the lawyer, rather than filling it in at their office. You can get help with filling in this part of the form, from a Community Law Centre or Citizens Advice Bureau

Read the next question for what your options might be if your legal application is declined.

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I applied for legal aid but it was declined. Can I do anything about this?

If you want to, you can challenge the decision regarding your legal aid application.

To do this, you will need to apply to the Legal Services Commissioner to ask for a reconsideration of the decision. You can do this by visiting your Legal Aid office and completing an application form.

Your appeal has to be made within 20 working days of the date of the decision.

If you are unsuccessful in having the decision changed in your favour, you may be able apply to the Legal Aid Tribunal for a review of the Legal Services Commissioner's decision. You can only apply for a review on the grounds that the legal aid decision was clearly unreasonable or wrong in law.

You must apply to the Tribunal within 20 working days of having received the reconsidered decision from the Legal Services Commissioner. You can get help with applying to the Legal Aid Tribunal from:

You can also challenge a decision about the amount of legal aid you are granted, or the amount you have to pay back. 

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I don’t think my legal aid lawyer is very good. Am I stuck with them?

If you’re unhappy about your legal aid lawyer and you are unable to resolve this by talking to the lawyer directly about your concerns you may be able to change lawyers.

Contact your local Legal Aid office or call 0800 2 Legal Aid (0800 253 425) as soon as you think you have a serious problem. Your new lawyer will need to apply on your behalf for your legal aid grant to be redirected.
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How do I make a complaint about my legal aid lawyer?

It’s best to start by trying to talk to your legal aid lawyer about your concerns. If this is not successful, or if you are uncomfortable with raising the issue with them, then:

  • if your lawyer is from the Public Defence Service you can talk to the deputy public defender at the nearest Public Defence Service office
  • if the lawyer is not from the Public Defence Service you can make a complaint to the Legal Aid Complaints office:

Legal Aid Complaints
Provider and Community Services
Wellington 6011

You can get help with filling out the complaint form from your legal aid office.

If the issue is still not resolved satisfactorily, you can make a complaint to the New Zealand Law Society.

More information about making a complaint about your legal aid lawyer is on the Ministry of Justice website.

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What can I do if I’m having problems with paying back my legal aid?

If you don’t repay your legal aid debt within six months of your cases being finalised, interest will be charge on your debt.

Call the Legal Aid Debt Management Group (0800 600 090) as soon as you know you have a problem making the repayments. You may be able to have your repayment plan changed so that it’s easier for you to manager your payments. In some cases, if you really can’t repay the debt you may be able to have some of it written off.

More about this is on the Ministry of Justice website.