New ‘essential’ legal service for Travellers launches

Service aims to ‘improve outcomes in housing, education and equality by enforcing their rights’

The Traveller Legal Service is essential to ‘meet a huge unmet legal need’ in the community, according to advocates. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Traveller Legal Service is essential to ‘meet a huge unmet legal need’ in the community, according to advocates. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

A new legal service for Travellers which will “improve outcomes in housing, education and equality by enforcing their rights”, opens on Monday.

The Traveller Legal Service, to be operated by Flac (Free Legal Advice Centres), is essential to “meet a huge unmet legal need” in the community, according to advocates.

“Our aim is that we will take cases which will have real impact across the Traveller community,” said Eilis Barry, Flac chief executive.

“We know the issues will be very much around housing rights – local authorities failing to implement their own Traveller accommodation programmes, failing to draw down their designated Traveller housing budgets, local authorities failing to designate homeless Travellers as homeless and denying them emergency accommodation.

“There are issues in education. Traveller children being disproportionately placed on reduced timetables for instance.

“We have pretty good equality and human rights legislation. It is about enforcing that.”

‘Problematic’ legislation

She cites other legislation, however, that may be “problematic” for Travellers’ rights, including the 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which criminalises nomadism by making it an offence to park overnight on public land. This may need to be “reviewed” in the courts, suggests Ms Barry.

The service will be funded by the Community Foundation for Ireland for three years and will have one full-time solicitor. Referrals to the service are expected to come through Traveller advocacy organisations. It already has a number of cases, said Ms Barry.

“We had a part-time legal clinic for Travellers and Roma, funded for one year which closed in 2017. It was inundated with cases. We are still working on some of them.”

Martin Collins, co-director of Pavee Point and a member of the new service’s steering committee, said: “This new service is absolutely essential. It is about improving access to the legal system for Travellers where, as a marginalised community, access can be quite limited.

“There is a great demand for it. Though this service will really be quite limited – there is only one solicitor – we hope it will prove itself and show that it needs to be sustained beyond the three years and expanded.

“Accessing the legal system and the courts is a really important part of a wider strategy to see Travellers’ human rights vindicated.”

Over the past decade, he said, Travellers were increasingly turning to the courts to vindicate their rights. “Often after trying everything else, mediation, negotiation, when that doesn’t succeed people go to the courts.”

However, the cost of taking cases was a significant inhibitor unless the individual was willing to represent themselves or could get a solicitor to take their case pro bono.