Can you give us an overview of the legal team at Fire and Emergency New Zealand?

Fire and Emergency New Zealand, established in 2017, brought together rural and urban fire services, including the former NZ Fire Service which was served by one sole in-house lawyer. Post amalgamation, the need for a dedicated in-house legal team was identified, with the appointment of a Chief Legal Advisor as the initial step to building the broader in-house legal function. Over the last couple of years the team has gradually developed and grown as complimentary skill-sets have enabled a well-balanced and high performing team. This is a gradual and careful process as work continues around developing all the systems required to fully support an effective in-house legal function. We are now a team of six lawyers, five based in our National Headquarters in Wellington and one based in our Auckland Regional Headquarters, supporting an organisation of 15,000 staff (including 12,000 operational volunteers).

Are you rolling out or planning to roll out any new ways of working or systems to support the work of the legal team?

We are currently working with an external provider as well as our internal ICT team to establish a new workflow management system. This will create a bespoke system for our in-house legal team, enabling greater ease of work allocation and monitoring, as well as instantaneous reporting.

How you support the work of the organisation?

The key focus of our organisation is, of course, the frontline operational activity of our firefighters. While they don’t require legal advice to do their BAU, issues can arise around the limits of their role.  Generally, we provide legal advice to all the other internal functions that support what our frontline staff do - from the Board and Executive Leadership Team through to volunteer recruitment. So our work is varied and diverse. It is important that we are available for any aspect of the organisation where legal advice is required. For example, we have a large commercial component to our organisation - our property portfolio includes over 600 properties; and we have hundreds of ICT platforms to assist in carrying out our work. Legal advice supports the property portfolio and new and existing ICT systems require commercial and privacy advice. We also advise on high value procurement matters. On a different note, as an in-house government legal team, there are the usual matters we get involved in: statutory interpretation, legislative policy, the scope of our legal investigation powers, and various machinery of government issues. Our organisation also has one of the highest number of OIA requests for any government agency, partly due to the public interest in what we do. So legal advice is provided regarding high profile OIAs.

What have been your most recent challenges as an organisation and how did the legal team help resolve them?

We have had two major projects this year. COVID-19 was, and continues to be, part of our work. While emergency response is BAU for our Service Delivery Branch, part of our work included assisting in setting up a robust internal response structure for the entire organisation. The team were fully accessible and immediately responsive daily during lock down. We continue to assist now for resurgence planning, for example ensuring the correct delegations can be put in place in a timely way. We also had extended media coverage earlier this year in relation to historical issues. This required urgent advice that balanced the public interest and privacy interests.

What do you do to build and enhance the influence of the in-house legal function across the organisation?

Sometimes clichés have a basis in truth. Relationships are always key. The best way to establish internal relationships is to be approachable, and to provide high quality, responsive and timely legal advice. Our team is down-to-earth and approachable, as well as highly skilled.  We also instruct external legal providers when necessary. This in no way reflects on the quality and performance of the in-house team but rather ensures the team has the time needed to provide quality advice, and this further manages our legal risk.  As with any self-reflecting unit, we continue as a team to identify opportunities to engender trust and confidence, as we extend our role as trusted advisors within the organisation.

Is there anything else that you would like to mention that makes the work of the legal team a bit easier?

We are fortunate that our Board, Chief Executive and ELT recognise the value of legal advice. I see the key purpose of our team as being trusted advisors, fully across the organisation, where our contribution ensures that Fire and Emergency decision-makers consistently have the best advice in front of them to make the best decisions.