Criminal legal aid faces random means-testing

 

FORMALISATION OF applications for criminal legal aid and some random means-testing are likely to follow the taking over of the administration of criminal legal aid by the Legal Aid Board, according to its chief executive.

However, Moling Ryan told The Irish Timesthere would be no change in legal aid being approved by the judge at the initial hearing. “Everyone will fill out an application form with their PPS number. We can’t have big administrative machinery,” he said.

“I don’t anticipate any changes in the scheme at the outset. We are talking to court staff, gardaí, some judges and observing some courts. There are huge inconsistencies in the approach at the moment. There is a need for meaningful statistics.”

The taking over of the administration of criminal legal aid, which follows the taking over of the Family Mediation Service, is just one of the new tasks facing the new Legal Aid Board, which was appointed by the Minister for Justice last month. Its chairwoman is veteran family lawyer Muriel Walls of McCann Fitzgerald.

The extended remit for the aid board comes when the demand for legal aid has never been higher and resources are tight.

The rise in unemployment and wage cuts have increased the number eligible for legal aid, while the economic crisis has driven greater numbers to seek help for debt-related problems and put extra strain on relationships. These all contribute to the need for legal advice on family breakdown.

Ms Walls is also a mediator.

“Mediation adds a whole new dimension to the Legal Aid Board,” she said.

A pilot scheme in the Dublin District Court dealing with family law, where people could access mediation if they went to the court, had been successful, she said, and this could be extended. The Legal Aid Board is introducing a triage system to ensure that people seeking legal aid will get an early initial meeting.

At such a meeting, Ms Walls said, it might be that the person should be referred to the money advisory organisation Mabs, or that the family law problem may be suitable for mediation.

She saw the problems the board dealt with at first hand as one of the early members of the legal rights organisation, Flac, where she set up the community law centre in Coolock, now the Northside Community Law Centre.

While she has been a partner in one of the larger law firms for many years, she said that in family law, “the emotional dynamics are very similar. It’s the same court system. How you manage it is the same.”

She would also like to see the Legal Aid Board more involved in community legal education.

“I taught family law to people doing a Fetac course in the Ballymun Community Law Centre. It was hugely beneficial to the community there, where people could then go on to explain issues like guardianship, the rights of grandparents and so on.”

One unexpected area where the demand for legal aid has increased is that relating to childcare issues, where the HSE seeks to take children into care, according to Mr Ryan.

This can only be done through an order obtained in the District Court. The case can involve multiple court appearances, with lawyers representing the family, the HSE and, sometimes, the child through a guardian ad litem.

This growth in the number and complexity of cases will stretch the Legal Aid Board to the limit, but both Mr Ryan and Ms Walls see it as an opportunity to re-examine what it does and how it does it.

“We need to redefine the purpose of legal aid,” Mr Ryan said, “to facilitate people in resolving their problems. It is not necessary to pursue everything through the court.”