Practising rural law

What does it mean to be a rural lawyer?

Christchurch practitioner and specialist in rural law Kit Mouat says lawyers in rural areas need to be general practitioners and have the ability to work with others to gain the vast amount of knowledge needed to deal with rural matters.

Mr Mouat is a consultant at Goodman Tavendale Reid Law, an accredited supplier to Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), and has a detailed understanding of land matters.

He specialises in advising the agricultural sector in high country tenure reviews, resource law - including foreshore and seabed - conservation land, Queen's chain issues, land status, Māori issues, planning, conveyancing, valuation and arbitrations.

“I deal mainly with high country people and the special nature of their leases that they have from the Crown and the way that the legislation impinges on pastoral leases.”

He also determines what the Crown will pay in compensation for anything which may impact on someone’s land.

“When it comes to rural law in a farming sense, it starts getting a hell of a lot more complicated with water rights, milking rights, and the ownership structures, structures that they have for the irrigation companies and they’re all different and varied.

“Then you’ve got paper roads, Queen’s chain and issues like that, that can arise on the odd occasion,” Mr Mouat says.

To be able to successfully carry out rural law work, Mr Mouat says lawyers need to have a good understanding of ownership structures, the rights of the companies such as Fonterra and its structures as well as a “huge understanding of resource management law”.

Working with specialists in particular areas is also important.

“If you’re going for water consents it’s absolutely huge. You’ve got to be able to get people around you and have some really good scientist-type people in the water area.

“So really a lot of these cases are dealt with in three ways, between lawyers, accountants and the experts in in the field of resource management.”

In a single office, he says, a lawyer would have resource management people, legal executives for conveyancing and lawyers versed in the financial complexities of enterprises and structures.

“You deal with real people when you’re dealing with farmers. That’s one of the good things about it. You can go out to them, too, and have a look. I have had quite a few helicopter rides out of it. It has all those sort of advantages as well.”

Senior partner at Ronald W. Angland and Son Lawyers, John Angland, works in Leeston, 40km southwest of Christchurch.

Mr Angland specialises in rural and recreational land-related transactions, asset protection advice, commercial and business law, tax planning structures, trusts and estate management and succession matters.

He has been involved with corporate and rural law since 1985.

“They’re (rural law) general practice but primarily it’s property in family, and small business in terms of leasing. It’s not so much your heavy duty corporate work.

“You’re not just dealing with residential transactions but also farming aspects. You have to have a pretty good handle on GST and tax law as well. The numbers are substantial and mis-calculations can be expensive.

“For an urban lawyer coming out to the country, that’s an area that they would need to bring themselves up to speed with and land-related transactions, particularly with the changing GST and tax rules,” says Mr Angland.

He says when working for families, work tends to be more separation and relationship property matters.

“I think in the 20 years I’ve only ever had one that has gone to the Family Court as a dispute so generally they tend to be relatively straightforward. Maybe it’s because people have a more laid back attitude in the country.”

Mr Angland says his practice also encompasses estate planning, estate administration and trusts as “there is a lot of desire to ensure good succession for the family in rural farms”.

The internet has also allowed him to do some international work.

“The internet is amazing because it lets you do so much from anywhere. Once upon a time when you were out in the country practising law you were relatively limited in what you could take on in terms of ‘out of the area work’. Nowadays, I act for people right across the country from Auckland to Invercargill.

“It also allows me to do overseas investment work.”

Mr Angland says successfully practising in rural areas is achieved through working with a wide range of specialists.

“That’s something that I do a lot of. I use specialist firms for overseas investment work.

“We tend to have a network. You might have a little business on your own in the country, but networking with those other larger firms for specialist advice is an important part of the practice,” he says.

Conflict of interest in the law is also something prospective rural lawyers need to be aware of.

In conveyancing deals, Mr Angland says there are often times where clients are both buyer and seller and he may have to refer clients for independent advice.

“Recognising the conflict is really important. When you have to send people away it can be annoying for the client and it is frustrating, but that’s something that lawyers have to be pretty conscious of that they don’t get involved in conflicts in that area.”

A good relationship with the community is also important as “rural lawyers are very involved in the local community in terms of pro bono work for the charitable trusts, rugby clubs and those types of people”.

Therefore, Mr Angland says, rural lawyers are attuned to their clients’ financial situations and may write off work which some clients may not be able to afford.

“Whilst your business might be profitable, turnover is a lot less for the month than comparative to what you would be doing if you were working in the city.

“Sometimes you carry your clients through quite a lot when times are tough and because your potential client base is a lot more limited than the urban environment. Good will is really critical to your business.”

Mr Angland says the true advantage of working as a rural lawyer is the people and the lifestyle.

“Working in a community that you know, the support goes both ways. They’re generally pretty good people out here”.

This article was first published in LawTalk 806, 12 October 2012, page 6.