Domestic violence survivors ‘should not pay for legal aid’
Free Legal Advice Centres says charge for service causing financial barrier for people
To qualify for civil legal aid, a person must have a disposable income of less than €18,000. Applicants must contribute up to €150 for legal advice and a minimum of €130 for legal representation.
People who experience domestic violence should not have to contribute to the cost of civil legal aid when they apply for court protection, the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac) has said in its annual report published on Monday.
The Free Legal Advice Centres says the Legal Aid Board, which provides subsidised civil legal aid, should not seek contributions towards legal representation for applicants seeking safety, protection or barring orders.
To qualify for civil legal aid, a person must have a disposable income of less than €18,000. Applicants must contribute up to €150 for legal advice and a minimum of €130 for legal representation. This can rise to €1,755, depending on the means of the applicant. The board can waive the contribution if paying it would cause undue hardship.
In March of this year, the UN specifically recommended that Ireland end the requirement for victims of domestic violence to make the contributions.
Chief executive of Flac Éilís Barry said that, on July 14th, the UN followed its recommendation with a general comment urging states to ensure access to “financial aid and free or low-cost high-quality legal aid”.
“The Law Society of Ireland has also echoed our call to drop these charges,” Ms Barry said. “We are hopeful the Minister [for justice] and the Legal Aid Board will heed these calls and remove this financial barrier for victims seeking crucial legal protections.”
Flac welcomed the review under way on eligibility requirements for civil legal aid, which Ms Barry said were badly out of date. She also welcomed the Legal Aid Board’s decision to defer restrictions on legal aid for family law cases at the District Court.
Flac runs a network of free legal advice clinics across the country as well as a phone information line.
The charity’s annual report, launched on Monday by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, shows that more than 25,700 people got free legal information or advice from it in 2016.
Of these, almost 12,230 received information via Flac’s phone line and more than 13,480 were dealt with by volunteer lawyers at legal advice centres in 67 locations around the country.
Of the phone calls received, almost one-quarter related to family law queries, while issues with housing or landlords and tenants made up almost 9 per cent, and employment law queries were almost 8 per cent.
Of the family law phone calls, one-third related to divorce and separation, just under one-third related to custody/access/guardianship, and 17 per cent involved maintenance.
Other phone queries included issues such as probate, debt and client-solicitor relations. Queries at Flac clinics were also dominated by family law, with employment the second most frequently raised issue.
During 2016, the charity also took on a small number of strategic legal cases with the potential to benefit a wider group of people. These included a case in which a woman in direct provision accommodation for people seeking refugee status in Ireland experienced lengthy delays in receiving her decision.
Flac also provided legal representation to US non-governmental organisation the Electronic Privacy Information Centre(Epic), in a case involving the Data Protection Commissioner and Facebook. Epic’s role was that of amicus curiae, or friend of the court.
Separately, the Public Interest Law Alliance (Pila), which was set up by Flac and bridges the gap between non-governmental organisations and the legal profession, facilitated 85 referrals of cases to a free scheme in 2016. The scheme involves 330 barristers, 25 law firms and four in-house legal teams.
Referrals related to topics including governance, data protection, contracts and leases as well as issues involving campaigning work and clients of the NGOs, such as homelessness, disability and mental health.
Case study: ‘Too scared to go home’
One of the case studies in the report concerned a woman who was allegedly held captive by her husband and threatened with death, who failed to get a barring order against him after she could not afford the legal aid contribution.
After the incident, the woman, identified as Christina, was advised by gardaí to go to the Family Court and seek an interim barring order which she did successfully. The order lasted for seven days and the next week Christina returned to court to obtain a full barring order.
She was entitled to a legal aid solicitor but could not afford the €130 contribution fee and was forced to represent herself in court.
Flac said that her husband was able to afford a solicitor and that Christina became “all tangled up” during the hearing and was “totally intimidated”.
During the hearing her husband claimed she was the one who was abusive to him. The judge did not grant the barring order and her husband was allowed back into the house. The events were described in a case study by Flac.
“She was too scared to go home, and the [Domestic Violence] Service helped her find a place in a refuge,” Flac said.