Legal Aid Board struggling with cuts and ‘dramatic increase’ in demand

Waiting time for a first appointment with a solicitor can be more than four months

Muriel Walls, chairwoman of the Legal Aid Board – it is “. . . extremely difficult for the board to provide much needed services as speedily as we would like”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Muriel Walls, chairwoman of the Legal Aid Board – it is “. . . extremely difficult for the board to provide much needed services as speedily as we would like”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

Cuts to resources combined with a “dramatic increase” in the demand for legal aid since the economic downturn have made it “extremely difficult” for the Legal Aid Board to provide a timely service, according to the board’s annual report.

The report outlines how senior management at the Legal Aid Board – the body responsible for the provision of civil legal aid and advice to people of modest means – believe cuts to resources have impacted on services.

The total number of cases in which legal services were provided by the board in 2013 was in the region of 22,300, a marginal drop on the number dealt with in 2012. Of these, the board’s law centres processed 17,304 cases, while 5,640 cases were referred out to private practitioners.

The report shows the board received 16,851 applications for general legal aid last year, while the Refugee Legal Service, which provides legal services to asylum seekers, experienced a drop of 2 per cent in new clients to 708. Although demand for civil legal aid services in 2013 was similar to that in 2012, the increase in demand for such services over the seven years from 2006-2013 was well over 70 per cent.

“Inevitably, this level of demand combined with constrained resources has made it extremely difficult for the board to provide much needed services as speedily as we would like,” said chairwoman Muriel Walls and chief executive Moling Ryan.

“Waiting times to meet a solicitor were much longer than the board would wish for,” they said. “We are extremely conscious of the fact that delays in service can lead to further difficulties not just for the client but also for children, the wider family and even the community.”

Waiting times for an appointment with a solicitor in civil legal aid cases came under “increasing pressure” in 2013 due to greater demand and the constraints on the board’s resources.

The waiting time for a first appointment with a solicitor for matters other than those deemed priority cases was in excess of four months in 16 of the board’s law centres at the end of the year.

In the report, Ms Walls and Dr Ryan said the board had put in place and piloted a number of initiatives to seek to address this “pressing issue” but that efforts to ensure clients are provided with the “timely service” the board aspires to had been “insufficient”.

A “priority service” for people deemed to be in need of immediate service in areas such as domestic violence, child abduction and childcare issues looks to fast-track applications, and comprised some 17 per cent of all applications in 2013.

The use of private solicitors through the Private Practitioner Scheme also continued to be “extremely important” in providing legal services to clients. This service applies to certain family law matters in the District Court. But budgetary concerns restricted the extent to which the scheme was used in 2013.

General family law matters accounted for approximately 52 per cent of applications. In terms of the Family Mediation Service, there were 647 couples carried forward from 2012, while 1,288 couples attended a first mediation session in 2013. This brings the total number of couples in mediation to 1,935 – a decrease of 17 couples from 2012. Of these, 837, or 43 per cent, reached agreement. This compares to 36 per cent in 2012.

Approximately 696 couples in the mediation process were carried forward to 2014, while waiting times for services from the Family Mediation Service have been reduced to three months or less in every centre bar one.

Separately, in a tripartite initiative between the Family Mediation Service, the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service, some 408 couples reached agreement at Dolphin House, in Dublin, 41 couples at Cork District Court, and 16 at Naas District Court.

The demand for legal aid among asylum seekers dropped by 2 per cent last year, in line with the reduction in recent years in the number of people seeking asylum in the State. The dedicated asylum offices were set up in 1999 at a time when the numbers seeking asylum were increasing and the demand for legal services in this area was growing.

In 2001, around 5,700 people sought legal advice from the board on asylum issues. However, this number dropped below 1,000 in 2011 and has remained below that figure since. The number of people seeking legal services for asylum last year was 708.

While a free legal aid scheme does operate on the criminal side, contributions are payable in respect of almost all civil legal aid applications.

During the year, then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter agreed to the board’s proposal to increase these contributions. The extra resources generated are being directed to providing a “better and speedier service”, said the report.

Exchequer funding for the board was €33.759 million in 2013. This included provision for the traditional legal services provided by the board as well as for the Family Mediation Service. It also included a provision for the costs of administering the ad hoc criminal legal aid schemes.

Staffing levels rose slightly to 368 from 363 in 2012.