Access to Legal Advice key to Access to Justice

Posted on Friday, 19 March 2021
legal aid

A new Report from Mercy Law Resource Centre calls for urgent action to address barriers to housing supports for minority groups.

Mercy Law Resource Centre provides free legal advice and representation to those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. During 2020, of the total number of clients who sought their help to access justice, 65 per cent were of ethic minority and/or non-Irish nationals.

The Report identifies barriers to accessing housing supports by minority groups and recommends that changes be made at Local Authority level in how applications are assessed.  In particular, the reliance on Housing Circular 41/2012, which is frequently used as a basis for refusal by Local Authorities to even assess applicants for social housing or access to emergency accommodation. Housing Circular 41/2012 relates specifically to the assessment of housing for non-Irish nationals and provides guidance for Local Authorities on assessing reckonable residence for the purposes of determining if a non-Irish is eligible for assessment. The Report argues that this Housing Circular is unclear and out of date, as it doesn’t provide for new categories of migrants within its terms, nor does it take account of more recent policies concerning the determination of residency for migrants.

The Housing Circular, fundamentally, is a guidance document. It is not law, however when an applicant presents with an immigration status that is not set out clearly in the Housing Circular, it is frequently “applied inflexibly, akin to primary legislation”, resulting in a refusal of a housing assessment or emergency accommodation.

Another hurdle faced by migrant applicants is the “local connection test”. The Report indicates that this placed barriers in the way of those with a nomadic culture and to recent arrivals into the country and recommends that this aspect of the assessment be discretionary.

The Report also finds that minority groups are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and difficulties accessing housing supports.

In 2018, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission reported that black people are five times more likely to report housing discrimination than white people, and that nonwhite Irish nationals are 1.7 times more likely to experience housing deprivation than Irish nationals.[1] Travellers and Roma also make up a disproportionately large number of those experiencing homelessness. That same IHREC report shows that whilst Travellers make up just one per cent of the Irish population, they are nine per cent of the homeless population. Figures gathered by Pavee Point in respect of the Roma community, show that six per cent of the Roma population is homeless and that almost 45 per cent have had some previous experience of homelessness.[2]

The Mercy Law Report outlines various case studies to illustrate the real-life difficulties experienced by people facing these barriers. While these cases were all resolved in their favour, the “applicants themselves are hugely disadvantaged in circumstances where they must rely on specialist legal intervention to enable them to overcome these barriers to access social housing”. The support of the Mercy Law Resource Centre was key to that success.

Access to justice is a basic human right, however in order to achieve equality of access, there must be a balance of power on both sides. In a legal context, the balance of power almost always rests with those who can afford legal counsel. Redressing this balance requires the availability of free or low-cost legal services to those who need the advice of a qualified solicitor or barrister.

Social Justice Ireland believes that access to justice is such a fundamental human right that it should not be dependent on charities and calls on Government to ensure that people’s rights are protected and dignity respected in this most fundamental way, be adequate access to justice through the court system.