May 6, 2021

Caroline Silk – Legal Plus

Brave, defined by Caroline:

Continuing to do something in the face of adversity (being a changemaker). Sometimes that just means getting out of bed and continuing to do what you do on a daily basis.

Taranaki Lawyer, Caroline Silk, recently gave up a secure income and put her own capital on the line, in order to work harder than she ever has in her life. If that’s not a form of bravery, then we don’t know what is.

But it’s the “why” behind what she’s doing that drives her every day, and what will eventually spark positive change to New Zealand’s justice system. Well, that’s the dream, and it’s one we couldn’t wait to hear more about.

As one of the driving forces behind the newly formed Legal Plus – Ratonga ture me te tautoko, Caroline and her associates are hell bent on providing affordable access to justice and support. Their legal practice is not only focused on legal outcomes, but positive effects to an individual’s overall wellbeing.

“Too many people cannot afford access to justice,” she says.

“Often an access to justice problem leads to other health issues, or there is a mix of issues a person walks in the door with, and they require more than legal support. The dream is a model that is able to provide not only legal support, but other support, be it advocacy, or be it assistance with access to the right health outcomes.”

Business-wise, the team is working to a social enterprise model, which translates to lower cost, smarter working. They are completely self-funded and have not received start-up or community funding.

Legal Plus has also set up a trust to pilot a model where they will work with a partnership agency, preferably in the health sector, to prove that if access to health or justice comes early for an individual, then the economy will save money in the long run.

“Most people with an access to justice issue will have a correlating health issue (that is the theory). We have anecdotal evidence, now we need the empirical evidence. There are so many facets that go into achieving a just and equitable society. Access to housing, education and health are major components of that access to justice.”

Caroline says that despite spending many wonderful years in a law firm environment, she couldn’t help but feel the traditional model was becoming more unjust as time went on. That was what instigated her new journey, along with the desire to find genuine purpose in the work she was doing.

“I think the legal profession needs to face the reality that it is pricing itself out of the market. The average income in New Zealand is just over $50,000 – who was it that thought it was okay to charge anywhere up to $700 per hour for legal services? Yes, people are prepared to pay that, but what does it achieve in the long run? It creates a model of access to justice based on wealth and privilege, and not about what I personally signed up for when I decided to become a lawyer.”

While cost is a significant factor, Caroline says there are other challenges that also play a part in access to justice. Lack of lawyers who are already overworked (such as in family law), small numbers of lawyers providing legal aid, and community law centres struggling with client numbers and lack of funding, all contribute to the issue. 

Caroline also speaks to the “missing middle”, which refers to those who are not eligible for legal aid, but still can’t afford commercial lawyer rates.

“There are many lawyers who will give their time for pro bono work, but that is not the full answer to the issue we face in providing access to justice. Legal aid eligibility income thresholds for the public are set too low, and not being looked at by the Government anytime soon, while not every matter is able to have legal aid either.”

While most people tell Caroline she is mad giving up her income to embark on this journey, she does tend to agree with them. 

“It’s good to be doing the work, but it is a battle. It would be easier just to set up as a normal law firm, but I was concerned that wouldn’t give us the scope to do what we want to do.”

While she says the work is simply a “drop in the bucket” at this stage, we say every drop counts. So if doing this work fills your own cup on the daily Caroline, then you’re bound to fill up a full bucket soon. We salute you!

We also gave Caroline the opportunity to leave you with some parting thoughts, and here’s what she wanted to mention:

We have an amazing team of paid and non-paid supporters. We have sourced support in the business community through donations of furniture and time for professional advice that has certainly made getting off the ground easier. Often we have found other businesses are willing to provide support at more cost effective pricing to meet our needs. 

I also have the loyalty and support of my husband and family without which I would not have been able to pursue my passion.