FLAC report: justice for all

Staff and volunteer lawyers provide vital service to those without the finance to access the courts

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan recognised an acute need for legal advice and aid, and welcomed the inclusion of mortgage arrears under the remit of Free Legal Aid Centres, when launching their annual report. However, issues of State costs or the level of private contributions required, remain to be addressed. Reforms involving those issues and the delivery of a more effective civil justice system are being considered by an expert committee. In the meantime, qualifying criteria are unlikely to change and those seeking advice can expect to make contributions according to their means.

The staff and volunteer lawyers of FLAC provide a vital service for those who lack the financial resources to access the courts system in the normal fashion. It works closely with the Citizens Information Service and operates a telephone advisory service and 67 district clinics where consultations take place. Last year, more than 25,000 people received information and free legal advice. The great majority of cases involved family matters, followed by landlord/tenant issues, employers/legal services and criminal cases.

Recession brought cuts in State support for the system. In criminal cases, court fees fell by 10 per cent. The capital assets threshold to qualify for civil legal aid was cut dramatically and disposable income limits were frozen. By 2014, the criminal legal aid bill came to €50m and civil legal aid to €33m. Since then, there has been talk of limiting access to the courts in family law matters involving access, custody and guardianship. The Legal Aid Board has, wisely, deferred taking a decision. Protecting the public purse is important but family law cases connected with domestic violence or maintenance should take precedence.

FLAC wants qualifying financial thresholds raised because too many people are being excluded by limits set 11 years ago. It seeks the removal of all charges for those on social welfare and it wishes to extend its services to asset rich but cash poor individuals. However, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Court charges could, as the Troika suggested, be reduced.