New guides for lawyers safeguard vulnerable people

A free online resource designed to ensure fair treatment under New Zealand’s legal system for vulnerable people is now available for use by lawyers and judges. 

A team of disability and legal experts have developed Benchmark, a set of guidelines to protect people’s rights and improve their access to justice. Benchmark is funded by the IHC Foundation and the New Zealand Law Foundation.  

The project was sparked by research showing that people with intellectual disabilities were not being treated fairly in our legal system. Some people detained under compulsory care orders were serving much longer sentences than if they had gone to prison, they were vulnerable to pressure to confess and plead guilty, and found it more difficult to access parole.

Benchmark includes guidance on pre-trial case management for vulnerable witnesses and working with court-appointed communications assistants. There are also guides for dealing with children, older adults, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, and mental distress. 

Donald Beasley Institute Dr Brigit Mirfin-Veitch, who led the led the Benchmark project and the earlier research work, says the guidelines are a collection of best practice with vulnerable people. Knowledge and experience have been shared by lawyers with an interest and involvement and understanding of the issues. “What we want to do is to make these practices much more commonplace,” she says. “I think we are starting to change. There is a growing awareness that we need to do things differently.”

Three further guides are being developed - for people with autism spectrum disorder, mental distress and people who are hearing impaired. Brigit says she also envisages the resource expanding in future to include migrants for whom English is a second language and other potentially vulnerable population groups.