Just before 9 A.M. the first ‘portal’ of the day sounds an alert simultaneously in Christchurch, Timaru and Blenheim. This one is a test: a daily ritual that reminds everyone that this is not a ‘normal’ law firm.
By the end of the day there might have been as many as ten alerts, each representing a potential life-or-death situation for a woman, possibly also children.
Most people in New Zealand think law is a predictable, even boring, profession. Not so at Portia. Their principal lawyer, Erin Ebborn, describes her work as “a bit like Shortland Street every day.”
“Law is a mystery to most people,” says Erin, “Lawyers are portrayed in the entertainment industry as power-dressing intellectuals, able to swoop into a courtroom and hypnotise a jury with ease.” The reality is somewhat different.
“It’s fair to say that most lawyers in New Zealand are ordinary people who have undertaken intensive training and carry high expectations on their shoulders. They come from diverse backgrounds but share one thing in common: a desire for justice.” A number of high-profile domestic violence cases, recently covered by media, have passed through the urgent portals of Portia. This is one of the ‘evolutions’ that chief executive Jarrod Coburn is most proud of. “A key part of the success of a legal system is that people have access to justice,” says Jarrod, “Access means different things, depending on an individual’s personal situation. Sometimes a person is put in a situation where they have no resources, no friends and a chilling fear of immediate harm. In those circumstances stepping foot in a law office might be near impossible. Justice, in that case, is inaccessible.” This example is one that Portia lawyers see time and again, and prompted the firm to partner with women’s refuges to make justice more accessible for those experiencing family violence.
“When we started to understand the client’s perspective it became obvious a traditional approach was not ideal,” says Jarrod. “We cooperated with refuges and developed a solution that meant women had priority access to a specially-trained lawyer, a grant of legal aid and – ultimately – a temporary protection order, all within 48 hours from notification.”
Temporary protection orders are granted by a Family Court Judge who sits on a nationwide ‘virtual bench’ called e-Duty. Timeframes are strict: there is a cut-off at Noon and another at 3 PM. Time is of the essence due to the consideration of ‘necessity’ that judges are bound to consider in the interest of justice; the more time that has passed between the violence and the application, the more chance there is of the application being refused or put ‘on notice’.
Erin Ebborn says that can seem unfair, however justice must be balanced. “An application made urgently is called ‘without notice’. This means that the respondent – the person accused of the violence – doesn’t get a chance to put their case to the Judge prior to a temporary protection order being issued.” “This is a significant use of power by the Judiciary. It grants the Police authority to arrest a person if the order is breached. It restricts the freedom of movement of the respondent, meaning they cannot go to certain places and absolutely cannot go near the people covered by the order without their permission. Other orders can be granted to give temporary possession of furniture and chattels to the applicant and even force the respondent from the family home.” “When a lawyer certifies a without notice application they are making an oath – as an Officer of the Court – that they sincerely believe there is an urgent need for that order,” says Erin, “It is a significant power that requires a high level of responsibility.”
It’s 12:45, just before lunch, and a portal alert is received from a refuge outside of Christchurch. A client of the refuge needs a Protection Order but there is an even more pressing need: her child has been taken by her abusive partner, who is threatening to fly out of New Zealand. All thoughts of lunch are put to one side as the case is immediately triaged and assigned to a lawyer. The urgency of this case cannot be underestimated: it could mean a mother and her child being separated forever.
“There is an agreement between countries, signed by New Zealand in 1991, by an intergovernmental group called the Hague Conference on Private International Law,” says Erin, “The agreement is commonly referred to as the ‘Hague Convention’ and provides a remedy for the return
return of children taken wrongly across national boundaries.” “Despite the existence of this treaty, the legal process to seek reinstatement of a child to a country is still challenging. But at least for the 99 signatory countries there is a chance,” she says, “Unfortunately that leaves 94 nations where a child could simply disappear.”
profession, and they lead from example. Their focus on creating a flexible and equitable workplace received accolades last year in the form of a White Camellia award, presented by the Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy: herself a former lawyer.
“It’s great to be a source of good news for a big profession
Women’s Refuge clients gain direct access to Portia staff at their desks using VLaw®
By 12:59 an urgent email has been dispatched to Interpol, alerting them to the need for a listing on CusMOD: the NZ Customs computer system. Speed is everything. A few years ago Portia made a notification that was received as the plane was ready to take-off; Police boarded the aircraft on the taxiway and removed a baby at the last minute. This shows how a delay of literally seconds can see very different outcomes for children and parents.
Dealing with these daily events are a team of relatively young staff – the average age in the firm is 32 – who receive a high level of training and supervision. And this includes non-legal staff as well. Samantha has been with Portia for almost four years. She started as a receptionist and quickly progressed into management in what she describes as a “whirlwind journey”. Now, aged 27, Samantha is the firm’s operations manager, responsible for Portia’s central city office and branches in Timaru and Blenheim.
“I love working within a profession that celebrates high standards. The people I work with are decent, they have ethics and they’re focused on seeing justice done. There’s a sense of right-ness in what I do. Not many people are lucky enough to go home at the end of the day knowing they made a difference,” says Samantha. Jarrod Coburn and Erin Ebborn have been outspoken in the need for change within the example.
that is largely mysterious to most people," says Jarrod, “The legal profession is in many ways a closed book – veiled by inscrutable language, obscured by Hollywood tropes.”
“It feels that it’s time to open things up: to air-out the profession a bit.”
At the opening of the firm’s central Christchurch office Jarrod said this very thing before guest speaker Andrew Little, Minister of Justice. He called for a review of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act, reform to allow law firms to seek third-party investors and new rules to allow boards of law firms to bring on a diverse array of vocations… not just lawyers. Does he worry about upsetting the applecart?
“Never. The future belongs to the brave. The profession of law has been built over centuries by people who’ve stood up and spoken truth to power. “The people who do this are the ones that make evolution possible.”
Christchurch Mayor Hon Lianne Dalziel, Jarrod Coburn, Erin Ebborn and Minister of Justice Hon Andrew Little pause for a photo at the reception area of the new Christchurch office, at the recent launch of the new Portia brand