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Friends of the Court

“Free Legal Aid is here for you. Let me find you someone”.
 |  Pauline Stewart  | 

John Allum volunteers his time to Friends of the Court.

These words, or something similar, are often what is said by John Allum in his role as a “Friends of the Court”. Once a week John spends a day at the Thames District Court House. It is voluntary work which he has been doing for quite a few years. Not all New Zealand courts offer this service.

“I think it is important,” says John. “Everyone is entitled to a defense, and a lawyer is able to defend you better than you can defend yourself.”

John takes it in turns, one day a week. There used to be a larger group of volunteers, but now the Friends of the Court’s number is just two.

“This is not for the Youth Court or the Family Court. It is a duty we undertake for the general court cases. How it works is when I arrive, I am given a list of the names of the people who are appearing in court that day. I am also aware of who is offering free legal aid that day. We speak to each person due to appear, and we confirm with them that free legal aid is here.  If that person wants legal representation, our job is to find them one.

“We try to get them the legal aid, in the order of their court appearance. Not everyone gets legal representation. There are generally two lawyers, sometimes three.”

John is very clear that this legal aid offered at the courthouse is a very fine aspect of our justice system.

“Having a lawyer to represent a person really helps. I have seen cases where a person is cleared of the charges because the lawyer could explain the context and make an appeal on behalf of the offender who may have a good case for leniency.”

John shared how things  have to move quickly for Friends of the Court.  There is five minutes allotted for each case and sometimes a case can get postponed as further investigation is needed.

In this region a person might have to travel for over two hours each way to make a court appearance and then all they get is a five-minute time slot. If some aspect of the investigation is not done, then it is postponed for a couple of months.

“It can be a long journey and so little accomplished,” says John.

“So, it is important that when people are summoned to appear at the courthouse, that we understand exactly what help they need and that people have an opportunity to explain the context as to why they are here.

“One of the common misdemeanours is that sadly, different ones have tried to outrun a police car,” says John ruefully.

We asked John why he does this work.

“I love Thames,” says John. “I love its history. The town has a great vibe for me, having lived here for 35 years. This is an old courthouse with a lot of history, and as I have said, I love history. In this way I can help people who maybe in a very tight spot.”

John’s late wife was also one of the ‘Friends of the Court’ and it is why John got involved. “This is something I can do well and it carries on a legacy of goodwill and care for those who can feel  like an underdog.”

Editor’s note: One of the concerns that arose in The Informer’s conversation with John, and others, as part of interactions over misdemeanours and the law, was that “…society seemed awash with ‘Meth.’ The degree of its infiltration is astonishing, and it involves all classes of society. “ This is a sobering thought for our beautiful Coromandel Peninsula and I am sure for other areas of New Zealand.”