Surge in legal aid services demand
With tight budgets and growing demand for its services, the Legal Aid Board is at a crossroads
Some 5,000 people were waiting for an appointment to see a solicitor from the Legal Aid Board at the end of last year and waiting times have lengthened to more than 12 months for law centres in some areas of the country.
The board has taken over the family mediation service and is due to take on responsibility for the criminal legal aid system later this year. But in a climate of tight budgets and growing demand, how will it meet the challenges of the years ahead?
Chief executive of the board Dr Moling Ryan says there has been a surge in demand for civil legal aid services, up by 93 per cent between 2006 and 2011. And though demand dropped by 10 per cent in 2012, the organisation is still stretched to its limits on a €32 million budget.
“We have been operating with 85 solicitors to provide a national service for a growing number of people who want legal services,” he says.
The downturn in the economy has meant a greater number of people qualify for means-tested legal aid, and as financial pressures bite, there is also a greater need for family law advice and legal aid in cases of debt.
At the end of 2008, 1,600 people were waiting for an appointment with a legal aid solicitor, but the figure was 5,000 at the end of December 2012, an increase of more than 200 per cent. People are waiting more than a year in some law centres including Portlaoise, Co Laois, Kilkenny city, Gardiner Street in Dublin and Ennis, Co Clare. Waiting times in Finglas and Tallaght in Dublin and South Mall, Cork, are also lengthy, at 10 months. Unverified figures suggest waits may be even longer than 12 months in some areas, though some categories of cases receive immediate service.
“The idea of having to wait for 13 months to see a solicitor to my mind is unconscionable, it really is. I’m looking at times as they go out … and I’m asking myself if it is a meaningful service,” Ryan says.
There has also been an increase in childcare cases, up by 12 per cent in 2011. The board provides representation for the mother or father or both parties in most childcare cases in the State. And on the other side there is the Health Service Executive and the guardians ad litem.
“We are trying to provide representation on a fraction of the expenditure that the HSE provides,” Ryan says. “That creates huge challenges … we are very often provided with papers on the morning of the case which makes it hugely difficult to provide a meaningful service and that leads to adjournments.”
The area is “very labour intensive” and following the children’s rights referendum, which strengthened the protection of children in the Constitution and is due to be introduced pending legal challenge, there is more emphasis on the voice of the child. There will also be a greater focus on issues where there may be neglect of children, he says. “The consequence of that will be greater demand on our resources.”