Lawyers say there are fewer family legal aid lawyers available to help get people out of abusive situations.
A legal aid lawyer had to be called in from leave to remove a child in danger from a meth house, as the number of available lawyers has declined sharply.
Ministry of Justice figures show the number of lawyers doing family legal aid work has almost halved in the past nine years.
Johanne Greally, from Hutt City Law, said the shortage was so severe over the Christmas period last year that she had to call colleagues in from leave to get children out of dangerous domestic situations.
A quagmire of paperwork, as well as the taxing nature of Family Court work, is making legal aid cases infeasible, the Law Society says.
In one case, a caregiver needed legal help in dealing with a parent "on methamphetamine who illegally uplifted a child".
"I couldn't do it, so I started ringing in every single legal aid lawyer who dealt with family court in Hutt Valley," Greally said. "There wasn't a single one who answered their phone and was available."
Ministry figures, released under the Official Information Act, show the number of "family lead providers" for legal aid fell from 1850 in June 2007 to 942 by June 2016.
During that same period, the number of taxpayer-funded family court lawyers invoicing more than $200,000 shot up from five to 44.
The ministry says there are still plenty of approved legal aid lawyers available, and put the big drop in numbers down to regulation changes that required lawyers to reapply for approval.
"Some providers doing little or no legal aid work chose to not reapply," ministry legal aid manager Tracey Baguley said.
The ministry was now sorting out many low-end cases before they got to the courts, thanks to the Family Dispute Resolution service.
More lawyers were now specialising, explaining the growth in the $200,000-plus club, she said.
But lawyers say a quagmire of paperwork, as well as the taxing nature of Family Court work, is making legal aid cases infeasible.
Law Society family law chairwoman Michelle Duggan said firms were increasingly making a business decision to ditch family law work as it was time-consuming, time-critical and hard work dealing with vulnerable people in stressful situations.
"After a time, a lot of lawyers wonder if they can put themselves back there." Fewer Family Court lawyers meant there were consequently fewer doing it for legal aid, which was even less desirable as it involved filling out a 23-page document to claim for pay. "It is really administratively painful," she said.
There were areas of New Zealand where the shortage was not bad, but Blenheim, Wairarapa, and the West Coast were the worst. There were just three lawyers doing regular family legal aid work in Blenheim.
Greally said lawyers could earn only one-third of the rate doing public work as they could for private work, and even then only some aspects of the job were paid.
Visits to clients' homes, or extra work on complicated cases, were often not paid, as the paperwork to claim for it was too time-consuming.
Against this background, a new organisation was launched on Thursday to help legal aid lawyers share knowledge and skills in areas such as business operations, technology and change management.
Legal Aid Providers Aotearoa (LAPA) has been set up by Christchurch family lawyer Erin Ebborn. It will provide an 0800 number and website to help those who need access to legal aid to find a lawyer quickly.
"Up until now it has been very difficult for the public to identify and locate lawyers committed to delivering legal aid," Ebborn said. "So the major beneficiaries of this co-operative will be social services and other organisations who work with people on low incomes, and the likes of women's refuges, who regularly seek urgent legal intervention for their clients."
BY THE NUMBERS:
1850: The number of family lead providers for legal aid in June 2007
942: The number of family lead providers for legal aid in June 2016
17,985: Family legal aid grants in 2006-07
18,354: Family legal aid grants in in 2015-16
1238: Lawyers who invoiced for family legal aid work in 2006/2007
861: Lawyers who invoiced for family legal aid work in in 2015-16
5: Lawyers who invoiced for more than $200,000 in family legal aid work in 2006-07
44: Lawyers who invoiced for more than $200,000 in family legal aid work in 2015-16