There have been calls for a root-and-branch review of the provision of civil legal aid after it was described as “out of date” and inadequately funded.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee heard that the “very restricted system” of accessing legal aid impacts on vulnerable people.
Eilis Barry, chief executive of FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres), said the system of civil legal aid in Ireland was introduced in response to the Airey judgment 40 years ago.
“At the time it was introduced it fell far short of what had been recommended in the Pringle Report on civil legal aid and advice,” she added.
FLAC’s full Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality on ‘Access to Justice & Costs’ can be viewed here (check box to access!) 👇https://t.co/otGdImnkOU
— FLAC: Access2Justice (@flacireland) November 27, 2019
“While there has been incremental minor changes, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to bring about substantive changes to this very restricted system and to convince the Government that it needs to invest significant increased resources into the legal aid scheme.
“There needs to be a root-and-branch review of the provision of civil legal aid, to include the funding of the Legal Aid Board, the means test, the allowances, the fees, the merits test, the exemptions of certain areas of law, the method of delivery of legal services, including the targeting of services for particularly vulnerable groups and individuals.
“Access to justice involves more than access to legal aid and includes access to the courts.”
She said the public has a right to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights and the constitution, particularly if a claim involves European law.
Ms Barry told the committee that European law is present in some aspects of social welfare as well as homelessness, environmental law and privacy law.
“This requisite assessment of need and breadth of area of laws covered is not reflected in the legal aid system that we have, with its wholly inadequate funding, rigid and out-of-date means test and allowances, strictly applied merits test, and the exclusion of many areas of law that impact on vulnerable groups and individuals,” she added.
Conor Dignam, vice chairman of the Bar of Ireland, said the system in Ireland is “chronically under-resourced”, adding that significant additional resources are urgently needed.
Mr Dignam said there is a need to improve eligibility thresholds and the areas of law covered by the civil legal aid scheme.
He added: “They are necessary to ensure that the constitutional right of access is promoted and supported and secured to the civil legal aid scheme.
“I want to emphasise that investment in the civil legal aid scheme shouldn’t be seen in isolation.
“There is little point investing in a civil legal aid scheme, which ensures that more individuals have access to a legal system, if there are blockages further down the line within that legal system.
“Our view is that this civil legal aid scheme needs to be amended and improved, but also that there also has to be investment in the court system.
“Constricting budgets are making it harder for the courts to do their work.”
John McDaid, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, raised concerns over waiting times at its law centres.
He told the committee that approximately 57% of people who seek legal services will get an immediate or near-immediate service.
Certain case types, including domestic violence and those involving Tusla, are prioritised, he added.
“Most of those looking for legal services for a remedy in the District Family Court will be granted legal aid swiftly,” he added.