Chief Justice calls for significant improvement in legal aid system

Chairman of Legal Aid Board says income thresholds for support should be reviewed

Philip O’Leary, Chairperson, Legal Aid Board (left) and Chief Justice  Frank Clarke at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Legal Aid Board on Thursday. Photograph: Fennell Photography

Philip O’Leary, Chairperson, Legal Aid Board (left) and Chief Justice Frank Clarke at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Legal Aid Board on Thursday. Photograph: Fennell Photography

 

The State’s top judge has said he “feels strongly” that the Irish system of civil legal aid needs to be “significantly improved”.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke said there was a “very powerful argument” in favour of significantly reviewing the income thresholds that apply for people seeking assistance from the Legal Aid Board.

He made his remarks at an event in Dublin held to mark the 40th anniversary of the board, which supplies people on low incomes with civil legal representation.

The chairman of the state body, Philip O’Leary, also called for a review of the entitlement threshold which, he said, has not changed substantially since 2006.

The service is separate to criminal legal aid and is only available to those whose disposable income is below €18,000.

The figure is arrived at after certain allowances are applied to a person’s after tax income.

Given how rent and other costs have increased over recent years, Mr O’Leary said, some people whose income is so low they qualify for an income supplement, are still found not to qualify for civil legal aid.

“Our service is a vital bridge in the access to justice journey and without that bridge a lot of people just can’t get across into the system,” he told The Irish Times.

Mr Justice Clarke said many involved in the legal system, “myself included”, feel strongly that the legal aid system needs significant improvement.

Legal aid, he said, is unlikely to be at the top of any political agenda and is not considered one of the great issues for the electorate in the general election.

“When faced with trolley numbers and homelessness, those priorities are entirely understandable.”

However, he said, the fact was that litigation has grown more complex and it was probable there were rights which were not being vindicated “at all because litigation in certain areas is very difficult to mount without legal aid.”

Higher costs

The increasing complexity of litigation meant higher costs for those who had to pay for it.

“I suggest that this gives a very powerful argument for a significant review of the income thresholds which are applied to determine entitlement to legal aid.”

While someone with a middle range income might be able to afford some types of litigation, he said, that person might not be able to pay for more complex, and therefore more costly, legal actions.

While some argued that the “no foal, no fee” system fed a compensation culture, any reform of the system would have to confront the fact that a great deal of litigation where rights are vindicated and established, could only be brought with the benefit of such an arrangement.

Mr Justice Clarke also noted that the no foal, no fee system only worked in cases where there was a party involved who, if they lost, would be in a position to pay the costs. That was not always the case.

The Bar Council, in an election statement, has also called for increased resources to be allocated to civil legal aid.