Call for duty solicitor in family courts

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

Vulnerable parents whose children are subject to HSE care proceedings are in some cases not legally represented in court, the Free Legal Advice Centres have warned.

Noeline Blackwell, director general of Flac, called for a duty solicitor to be available to parents in every family law court building in the State.

There were “particular problems outside Dublin” where parents faced with having their children taken into care sometimes could not access legal aid in time for the court hearing.

In such cases it would be usual for the judge to postpone the hearing until the the parent or parents were represented. “But this can lead to long delays. If there was a solicitor available on the day a lot of time could be saved.”

She also said there should be no income threshold to access legal aid in childcare cases. Currently only people with a disposable income below €18,000 per year may apply for legal aid.

According to Ms Blackwell, based on “discussions with lawyers in the family law courts around the country” some parents arrive at the hearing without legal representation.

This was often because they had not been able to locate or get to their local legal aid board office in time. “This used to be a problem in Dublin, but has been largely overcome because there is now a legal aid office in Dolphin House itself.

“I would say this is best practise. Sometimes people are under such pressure and so stressed, finding the legal aid board office can be difficult.”

Outside Dublin, she said, offices may be some distance from the court or even in a different town. “I have heard of parents getting lost trying to find the local legal aid office.

“It is crucially important parents get very good representation in these cases and that they fully understand what is going on. These are highly complex cases and some parents may be under all sort of other pressures. Putting a duty solicitor in the court building allows people to get to representation.”

Calling for the abolition of the income threshold for legal aid in such cases, she said they could be protracted and involve several hearings.

“That means very expensive legal bills if you have to pay yourself. In these cases Flac feels there should be no threshold.”

Last year the Legal Aid Board gave advice and/or representation in 1,297 childcare cases, compared with 1,137 in 2010 and 1,085 in 2009.