€500m legal expenditure should widen justice access: O'Loan

 

THE €500 million the State spends each year on legal costs should be spent more efficiently to make justice more accessible to more people, according to Nuala O’Loan, former Northern Ireland police ombudsman.

Ms O’Loan was giving the fifth annual Dave Ellis memorial lecture, organised by legal rights organisation Flac on the theme Access to Justice. She said in every jurisdiction the cost of legal services was an issue.

Her own upbringing alerted her to the extent to which people may have rights but no means to access them, little knowledge of them and no language with which to articulate them, she said. She was 13 and the eldest of eight children when her father died.

As a young law student she learned not all rights could be the basis of a claim before the court. She got direct experience of working with people of limited means seeking access to justice as a volunteer in Fulham Law Centre.

She also worked in one of the biggest law firms in London, having qualified in European commercial law. However, she then moved to Northern Ireland, where she took up an academic post and has worked in the area of rights ever since, she told The Irish Times.

She pointed out the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts had estimated the cost of legal services to the State to be up to €500 million a year, though there was a lack of clarity on the actual extent of legal costs, apart from the high costs of tribunals.

Evidence was given to that committee that the largest brief fee for a senior counsel engaged by the DPP for a murder case was €8,600, with a subsequent daily rate of €1,800, as opposed to tribunal brief fees of €30,000 and a daily rate of €2,250. She also pointed out that in civil cases involving the State the fees were even larger. “Why is there this discrepancy?” she asked.

“Given the level of legal expertise, the state of the administration and the level of underdeployment of legal capacity, is there scope for improvement in the provision of legal services here?” she asked.

Given the low means test for legal aid, there was a huge middle band of people for whom access to justice was rarely possible, and a further band for whom there was aid, but only when they reached the top of the queue. For example, the parents of a child who suffered a catastrophic injury and who had to face almost insuperable problems to deal with the catastrophe would have to face into possibly years of litigation against a defendant funded by the State, she said.

Access to justice was not necessarily about access to courts. Issues highlighted by Flac like social welfare entitlements should be tackled by examining the system and ensuring information was clear and accessible. More money could be put into mediation, she said