Chief Justice supports extension of free legal advice centres throughout the country

CLM Limerick says means test to access civil legal aid ‘out of touch’ with reality of cost-of-living and housing crises

The Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell and his predecessor Frank Clarke have said free legal advice centres should be rolled out nationwide to better inform the public of their legal rights and entitlements, and for justice to be seen to be served.

Mr Justice O’Donnell said he agreed with the terms of draft legislation on Ireland’s first formal judicial misconduct complaints procedure, which will not have powers to investigate retrospective allegations against judges.

He was speaking after addressing an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Community Law Mediation (CLM) service in Limerick, the only independent community law centre outside of Dublin.

Mr Justice O’Donnell said in March that the law becomes “dangerously disconnected” from the public it is meant to serve if people do not have adequate access to information about their legal rights and the courts. The law was not just something that is “imposed” on people or a “burden”, but could also be used to “fight” for people’s rights.


“Sometimes I think that people see the law, and understandably so, as something that does something to them, and yet I think CLM and other similar organisations show that the law can be a weapon for you to utilise in improving your situation – that message is very important to get across,” he said on Wednesday.

The CLM model, in which solicitors provide free face-face legal advice in parish halls, community centres, or on phone calls, should be a nationwide service, he believed. The law could be a “multifactorial problem” and required “a multifactorial solution” of which CLM was a “very helpful” part.

“CLM have shown that there is a really big space not just for legal advice but also for mediation and general advice within the community, and that’s a model that (should) be expanded on, it goes well beyond the idea of just representing somebody in court – it deserves to be encouraged and recognised,” he added.

The law was not a perfect instrument as “there are lots of days when its depressing, lots of days when its dispiriting, and it’s important to recognise the difference that is made by CLM”, he said.

CLM Limerick had described the means test to access civil legal aid as “out of touch” with the reality of the current cost-of-living and housing crises.

Supporting the ongoing review of the civil legal aid scheme, the Chief Justice said “we hope (it) will be reformed”, and he said a “access to justice” group, set up by Mr Clarke, was “hoping to do something on civil legal aid that will parallel the review”.

The first ever formal judicial misconduct complaints procedure mechanism is expected to be in operation within weeks, which will provide for a range of sanctions including the removal of a judge from office – currently only the Dáil has such power under Article 35.4.1 of the Constitution, and to date no judge has ever being removed.

As the new complaints regime will not be retrospective it cannot deal with allegations against judges made prior to its coming into effect. When asked if he agreed or disagreed with this, the Chief Justice replied: “It’s basically a fundamental principle of the law that the law has to operate prospectively – in any event that’s the structure that has been established, and I think it’s probably sensible to work it and let it operate.”

Mr Clarke, who was appointed president of the Law Reform Commission, said it was “striking there is only one CLM centre outside Dublin, here in Limerick – the whole country needs a service like this”.

“Obviously it has to be paid for and have support from either private or public sources, but I think the lesson from what is being done here is that we need this kind of thing nationwide, and not just in Dublin and Limerick.”

Mr Clarke, who is a CLM board member, said: “There are a range of reasons why people don’t get access to justice, sometimes it’s financial but sometimes it’s just a disconnect, and you need organisations that have a reach into the community, particularly into those parts of the community who wouldn’t naturally go to a solicitor.

“Therefore being able to build on something like a community-based operation which has that kind of outreach is certainly, I think, part of the model by which you can better deliver justice.”

Mr Clarke who is chairing the group reviewing the civil legal aid system, said everyone involved “is anxious to be able to produce the report within the timescale that we have been given”.

The review group is due to report its conclusions in July 2023.