Surge in calls to Flac shows ‘ongoing crisis in unmet legal need’

Calls to Free Legal Advice Centres in 2021 highest number since 2015, with most seeking advice on family or employment law issues

A surge in the number of calls to the Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) last year illustrates “an ongoing crisis in unmet legal need” here, the human rights organisation has said.

One caller was over the legal aid means test by just €500 and had incurred more than €20,000 legal costs in a contested family law matter, Flac chief executive Eilis Barry said.

According to Flac’s 2021 annual report, there were 13,147 calls to its information line, the highest number since 2015, with most seeking advice on family or employment law issues. Almost half of Flac’s new case files for the year involved claims by Travellers regarding housing and discrimination.

The increase in calls occurred despite Flac having reduced opening hours during the Covid-19 pandemic and represents “the tip of the iceberg” because the organisation does not have the resources to answer every call, Ms Barry said.

Throughout the year, Ms Barry said, the ongoing impact of the pandemic and increased financial pressure on individuals and households added to “an ongoing crisis of unmet legal need in this country”. Calls to Flac provided an insight into the “enormous stress” some individuals and families were under, she added.

Some 30 per cent of all queries related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence and custody and maintenance issues, up by about 13 per cent on 2020, while employment law issues such as dismissals and contracts accounted for 15 per cent.

Callers were stressed because they did not qualify for legal aid, with many narrowly missing the means test, according to Ms Barry.

“There has to be a better way to provide services that enable access to justice,” she said, adding that Flac was “relieved and pleased” that the Government had established “a long-overdue review of the civil legal aid system”.

The organisation’s annual report, entitled Towards Equal Access to Justice, is to be launched in Dublin on Monday by Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell. He said: “Flac has established itself as an institution, and an invaluable one, which over the course of its history has campaigned for change, protected the weak, challenged the strong and educated us all.”

The report outlines that, in addition to 13,147 calls to the Flac information line, there were 2,729 consultations on more complex matters, mainly concerning family and employment law, at its phone advice clinics.

Legal assistance was provided to 110 social justice organisations through Flac’s PILA Pro Bono Referral Scheme and Independent Law Centre, which takes on cases in the public interest. Some 88 case files – mainly concerning housing, social welfare and discrimination claims – were dealt with. One claim resulted in an €8,000 award to a man against an organic farm where he was a voluntary worker over being asked to leave after disclosing his HIV status. Claims by three Roma women of discrimination, including in supermarkets, were settled by Flac.

A constitutional challenge over the High Court’s wardship jurisdiction, where Flac represented an intellectually disabled man, led to the repeal of the 1871 Marriage of Lunatics Act and a Government commitment to commence the Assisted Decision-Making Capacity Act, according to the report.

Many callers to Flac try to navigate the courts system alone and it has nowhere to refer these ‘lay litigants’ who are “completely daunted by court forms and procedures”, Ms Barry said. Other callers were facing legal proceedings but were meeting long delays in being approved for legal aid.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times