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Access to Justice means addressing the power imbalances
The Legal Aid Board provides advice and representation on criminal and civil matters for those on low income. Criminal legal aid, through the Garda Station Legal Advice Revised Scheme, the Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme and the Criminal Assets Bureau Ad-hoc Legal Aid Scheme, is free of charge to the user, subsidised by the State for those dependent on social welfare or having a disposable income of €18,000 per annum or less. Civil legal aid is also subsidised, but it is not free. Applicants are means tested and pay a fee of between €30 and €130 for this service. Their case is also subject to a merits test, to ascertain if the case has a chance of success. Their civil services range from family law matters (including separation, divorce and custody and a free family mediation service), debt, wills, and inheritance. In 2017 there were 14,687 applications for Legal Aid, an increase of 6 per cent on 2016.
The regressive nature of most of the changes to the state-funded civil legal aid scheme during the economic downturn disproportionately impacted on vulnerable and marginalised groups. Cuts in both staffing levels and funding for the Legal Aid Board and the decision to raise costs for legal services had the inevitable effect of both to deter and to deny access to justice. Budget 2019 increased the allocation to Criminal Legal Aid by €12 million to €61.3 million, while Civil Legal Aid increased by just €500,000. This is insufficient to allow the Legal Aid Board to deal with its caseload or undertake the necessary review of the eligibility criteria.
Consumers who need legal advice, but do not require legal representation, can access the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) who provide a network of volunteers through clinics held primarily in Citizens Information Centres nationwide. FLAC volunteers provide advice on a range of legal issues, including family law, debt, probate, employment and property. A consultation is twenty minutes long and general advice is usually given, as in many cases the person seeking the advice has little or no paperwork for review. In 2017, 13,813 people attended FLAC clinics and a there were a further 12,003 callers to their telephone information and referral line. The main areas of inquiry to the FLAC information and referral line were family law, employment and housing.
For those who do not qualify for support through the Legal Aid Board, but still require legal representation, the Bar Council of Ireland provides a Voluntary Assistance Scheme (VAS) on referral from NGOs working with vulnerable people. In 2016, the Bar Council spent €17,569 on VAS, increased from €16,801 in 2015 (an increase of 4.5 per cent).
FLAC, VAS and the Legal Aid Board provide a valuable service, however Social Justice Ireland believes that access to justice is such a fundamental human right that it should not be dependent on well-intentioned volunteers dealing with a range of legal topics in twenty minute increments and calls on Government to ensure that people’s rights are protected and dignity respected in this most fundamental way, by adequate access to justice through the court system.