A draft law on criminal legal aid should make clear that the right to legal aid for victims of sexual violence is not subject to a means test, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
The Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) and Safe Ireland, in separate submissions to the Oireachtas Justice committee, both stressed victims of sexual violence should be able to access legal aid at all stages of the process.
They were among several organisations making submissions during pre-legislative scrutiny by the committee on Tuesday of the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill. It aims to expand legal advice services for victims of crime and tightens eligibility for legal aid, including by making it an offence to knowingly make misleading statements about income.
In submissions for Safe Ireland, Caroline Counihan said the Bill is a “great opportunity” to extend the right to legal advice to victims of specified domestic violence related offences who often cannot afford legal advice and cannot always access legal advice from a pro bono source.
Dr Cliona Saidléar of the RCNI said it is essential to deliver a “more survivor-centred justice service”.
The Bill should contain a general definition concerning all crimes of a sexual nature, she said. Many victims are reluctant to make and sustain a criminal complaint and need legal advice from an early stage to help them withstand the “traumatising impact” of the criminal justice process.
Fiona Ní Chinnéide, representing the Probation Service, said an efficient and effective legal aid scheme “is fundamental to safeguarding fair, equal and meaningful access to justice”.
Many offenders availing of probation services in the community have mental health and/or addiction problems and the service welcomed the attention to that issue, she said.
On behalf of The Bar of Ireland, Bar council chair Sara Phelan referred to Tuesday’s strike by criminal barristers over criminal legal aid fees remaining at 2002 levels. If the fees are not restored, that will “undoubtedly have a profound effect on the administration of justice and the application of the rule of law”, she said.
Ms Phelan referred to some two thirds of criminal barristers leaving the criminal Bar after six years and said the reduced numbers practicing at the criminal Bar will have a growing adverse impact on the ability to prosecute criminal cases and vindicate the rights of victims of crime and of accused persons.
This is “a national issue concerning the functioning of our criminal courts”, Ms Phelan said. The rule of law is also threatened by the situation regarding professional fees, she added.
Senior counsel Seán Guerin, chair of the council’s Criminal State Bar Committee, said it used to be the case that three or four difficult years were enough to get someone started at the criminal Bar but it now took ten years or more to make an adequate income.
The various ad hoc non-statutory schemes for legal aid should be brought together under an umbrella scheme, he said. The situation as it stands is that lawyers can put a lot of work into case where an important human right may be at stake without knowing whether they will get any payment, he said.
In other contributions, he said the Bill suggests there is a discretion in the Legal Aid Board whether to pay for expert witness reports sought for trials. The “very significant” delays in getting psychiatric reports for trials is contributing to trial delays, he said.
In his submission, barrister Darren Lalor, one of the organisers of earlier barristers’ protests about the levels of legal aid payments, called for a new system of direct payments by the State to criminal barristers for their District Court services.