Up to half of calls to ‘overwhelmed’ legal advice helplines go unanswered

Service has seen spike in domestic violence cases, family law issues since pandemic began

Funding for the Legal Aid Board has been increased by 5.6 per cent, or €2.36 million, for the coming year. Photograph: iStock

Funding for the Legal Aid Board has been increased by 5.6 per cent, or €2.36 million, for the coming year. Photograph: iStock

 

The telephone information and referral lines operated by Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) are “completely overwhelmed” by people looking for advice on family and employment law, a spokeswoman for the organisation has said.

The number of calls being received is such that up to half, or between 60 and 100 calls, are going unanswered every day.

As well as the rise in numbers, the queries being received are growing more complex, and the calls are taking longer, the spokeswoman said.

The service is expecting a “surge” in domestic violence queries after Christmas.

“There is a huge need for the services that Flac tries to provide by phone, which ideally should be provided by the State, which has far more resources. There is a great need for accessible legal advice during a pandemic.”

At the same time that demand for the service has been increased by the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated public health measures, Flac has had to close its free legal advice clinics in order to secure the safety of its volunteers and service users.

“This has left a large gap for legal advice,” she said. “Flac has organised Phone Legal Advice Clinics in response to the urgent need for legal advice in the areas of family law and employment law. However, these cannot meet the demand in the way our nationwide clinic service would have.

“In particular, the demand for family law clinics far outweighs the resources we have.”

Recent demand increase

Calls regarding domestic violence have been steadily increasing over the years and the service has seen a spike in domestic violence cases since the pandemic began, along with contentious family law issues, she said.

John McDaid, the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, said there had been a dip in demand for its services during the first period of the pandemic, but demand had increased in more recent times.

By the end of 2020 (December 22nd), the number of applications for aid in relation to domestic violence was up about 7 per cent, at 3,477, on the same period in 2019.

The organisation provides free legal support to persons involved in domestic violence cases who meet the financial eligibility criteria. The financial eligibility criteria have not changed substantially since 2006.

The public body ran a nationwide telephone service from the end of March, when many of its centres had no staff on site, but suspended the service at the end of November, by which time the centres were again fully operational and demand for the call service had dropped.

The centres have not as yet closed in response to the latest increase in social restrictions and are contactable by phone. The reopening of a nationwide phone line service is being kept under review in the light of future developments, Mr McDaid said.

Funding for the Legal Aid Board has been increased by 5.6 per cent, or €2.36 million, for the coming year.

In its annual report for 2019, published in October, the board said it was considering how to respond to an expected upsurge in demand for services, when the lockdown period ends.