Chief Justice warns about access to justice and importance of independent courts

Situation in US shows what happens when legal system becomes disconnected, says Donal O’Donnell

The law becomes “dangerously disconnected” from the public it is meant to serve if people do not have adequate access to justice and an independent court system, the Chief Justice has said.

Access to justice, Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell stressed, is not just about accessing courts but involves access to information about legal rights, the law and the court system.

It is “not enough to provide courtrooms and judges” but ignore the “many barriers that limit the capacity of ordinary citizens, or indeed, substantial businesses, to bring disputes to court and obtain a speedy and fair resolution of those disputes”.

The focus of the work this year of an independent working group on access to justice will be on the development of the civil legal aid system, he outlined.


He was speaking at an event in Ballymun, Dublin, on Tuesday to launch the report of a major conference on Access to Justice last October, hosted by the working group, which heard contributions from judges, lawyers, academics and many civil society organisations.

Described as an important “signpost to the future” , the report was presented by the Chief Justice to Oonagh McPhillips, secretary general of the Department of Justice, who was representing the Minister, Helen McEntee.


Ms McPhillips said the Minister was unable to attend because she is self-isolating but wished to convey her good wishes and her “deep commitment” to widen access to justice and to achieve a more diverse justice system through a range of reforms.

The Minister welcomed the collaboration between the judiciary, Courts Service and her department towards achieving that, Ms McPhilips said.

The conference participants, the report noted, welcomed various reforms being advanced by the Minister such as family, civil justice and judicial appointments reform, but they also identified many needs are not being met by the current system.

Participants urged greater co-ordination of work among groups promoting access and noted that justiciable problems trigger health and social problems, vulnerable, disadvantaged and disabled clients have particular needs and that investing in justice brings social and economic benefits.

The Chief Justice said people are “working hard, to ensure that a fair hearing is provided to everybody, and a fair result achieved” but “reality often falls short of the ideal” .

It is “difficult to avoid the impression there is something of a mismatch between what goes on in a courtroom and the world outside, in that the disputes in the courtroom do not always reflect the disputes in the daily life of citizens”.

Independent court system

If people cannot have disputes important to them resolved definitively by an independent court system, if many people do not even know of the possibility, the law “becomes dangerously disconnected from the public it is meant to serve, and a cavernous discrepancy opens up between what the law says, and what the law on occasion does, or is understood to do”.

An independent court system “in which justice is administered without fear or favour, affection or ill will, is not a luxury or optional extra” but is “central to the continued existence of a liberal democratic society”.

The situation in the US shows what happens when a legal system becomes increasingly disconnected from daily reality, he said. Some public defenders in the US “no longer refer to the criminal justice system because that title implies that the system provides justice, something they increasingly are inclined to dispute”.

“We should not assume that our system is immune from those pressures.”

The Access to Justice report recognises the problem of access to justice is complex and multifactorial with “no single easy answer”, he said.

While it was “fashionable in the past to look to the State to provide answers and funding, almost without regard to cost, or competing demands in society”, progress in this area involves careful work by those attempting to simplify court procedures on the one hand, voluntary groups providing advice and assistance, and private practitioners providing services, sometimes pro bono, he said.

It might also involve consideration of reform and regulation of third-party funding models for private litigation, he added.

The recent large investment in substantial court buildings, particularly the Criminal Courts of Justice and the proposed new purpose-built family courts centre at Hammond Lane, showed “a commitment that legal disputes would take place in surroundings that respected the essential human dignity of all the participants”.

First solicitor

Gary Lee, managing solicitor of Ballymun Community Law Centre, said, when it opened 20 years ago, it provided the first solicitor to practice in an area of 22,000 people.

A “huge unmet legal need” is still evident in the area, he said. The centre brings the law to people “who often see the law as something used against them, for example in a criminal law context or a home repossession”.

He said 70 per cent of the centre’s clients are people with disabilities and the system “appears to be failing those who need it most”.

Mr Lee said inclusion and diversity should be the bedrock of the system and welcomed the Minister’s commitment to improving both. “Wouldn’t it be great to have lawyers and judges who come from Ballymun?” he asked.

The Access to Justice working group, established in early 2021 by former chief justice Frank Clarke, comprises representatives of the judiciary, the Bar of Ireland, the Law Society of Ireland, Free Legal Advice Centres and the Legal Aid Board.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times