Surge in legal aid services demand
Criminal legal aid scheme
The board is also due to take responsibility for the criminal legal aid scheme following the passing of the Criminal Legal Aid Bill, expected later this year. It will bring a whole new area of responsibility and follows the addition of the Family Mediation Service and other smaller legal aid schemes to the board’s brief.
“It was important one organisation was responsible and accountable for it,” Ryan says.
The criminal legal aid scheme will still be a “relatively small management administration area” and the bulk of work will still be done by private solicitors and barristers. There are no plans to change that “at this stage”.
“Part of our remit will be to ensure we manage resources effectively; in reality on all legal aid, in comparison with other jurisdictions we get it very cheaply.”
It will also be important that funds for civil legal aid are ring-fenced so that they do not get swallowed up by demands in the criminal area, which has a €50 million budget. The reality is that resources won’t increase, Ryan says, so the board needs to see what it can do with what it has.
Its “triage service” aims to offset some of the difficulties associated with long wait times. It involves giving clients an initial appointment within a few weeks of application and basic advice on the process they are facing into. If they require further services they remain on the waiting list. Triage is being operated at some law centres. Early advice could result in some people being diverted to more appropriate services such as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service or mediation, reducing the stress and pressure on them.
Encouraging more couples to use family mediation instead of “rushing to law” could save money and also help reduce waiting lists. But cutting fees to solicitors does not seem to be an option.
“I don’t think there is really much more that we can extract from our existing solicitor cadre,” Ryan says.
He believes waiting times will continue to lengthen if the board continues providing its current range of services on the same budget. There is a need to examine whether the board should be providing advice in personal injury or medical negligence cases, both hugely time consuming and labour intensive. There is also a question of increasing the contributions – €10 for advice and €50 for representation – made by clients toward their fees, though that is a decision only Minister for Justice Alan Shatter can make.
The organisation is facing big challenges, Ryan says, but that is not how he looks at it. “For every case there is an individual and [for them] it is real and traumatic and difficult, and it is dominating their lives; it’s not just an organisational issue it is human, and there is a lot of pain there.”