The Chief Justice has called for greater access to legal aid in the courts.
Mr Justice Frank Clarke’s comments came as a leading legal assistance charity warned courts are now less accessible, and becoming limited to the wealthy.
Mr Justice Clarke said money saved by the taxpayer in the current common law system, which moves the burden of expense on to the parties involved, is a powerful argument for the expansion of legal aid.
The EU Commission’s annual comparative Justice Scoreboard, published last month, showed Ireland has the third-lowest expenditure on the courts as a share of GDP, at 0.2%.
The Chief Justice argued a civil law system, like those operated in China, Japan, Germany, France and Spain, costs the taxpayer almost three times as much as a common law system, and a percentage of those savings should be transferred to legal aid expansion to ensure every person in Ireland has equal access to justice.
In civil law countries, judges are often described as “investigators” and take on the lead role in cases, with less need for solicitors or barristers.
Common law countries operate with lawyers making presentations to the judge or jury and examining witnesses, with the proceedings refereed by the judge.
The Chief Justice estimates the civil law system costs around three times as much as the common law system, making huge savings for the state.
“The suggestion thereby is that the Irish taxpayer is probably saving somewhere between 250 to 350 million a year by passing the buck on to the parties,” Mr Justice Clarke said.
“If that’s correct, it seems to me very powerful argument for a significantly expanded system of legal aid.
“The taxpayer is saving by running a system which places a greater burden on the parties, and when the parties don’t have the resources to provide that catch-up themselves, there is a powerful argument for significantly increasing legal aid.
“If the savings are anywhere in the order of magnitude I suggested, a fraction of that would, I suspect, make the legal aid board very happy.”
He added that other elements for making the legal system cheaper should be explored, but “legal aid will remain a significant part of the equation and I think the saving the taxpayer is benefiting from can be used as a powerful argument”.
He was speaking at Trinity College, Dublin, to mark the 50th anniversary of the human rights organisation Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), which promotes equal access to justice.
The Chief Justice is a former FLAC volunteer, and has made access to justice a key focus of his tenure, with a particular interest in family court.
FLAC chief executive Eilis Barry warned on Friday that due to scant resources, injustices are left ignored and human rights infrastructure is unenforced when large parts of the population cannot access the court system.
She said: “The challenges FLAC is being contacted about – on a daily basis – involve individuals trying to navigate the court system without legal representation.
“Due to the limitations on the availability of legal aid, the door to justice is shut in front of these people.
“Access to the courts is built around the assumption that litigants will have legal representation, and increasingly legal representation is beyond what most individuals can afford.
Frank Clarke CJ notes importance of increased financial supports for legal aid in light of relatively low cost born by tax payer in Ireland as a common law system, when compared to the equivalent in a civil system, "legal aid is a significant part of the equation." #A2JCon2019— TEJPUCC (@tejpucc) May 17, 2019
“The more marginalised and disadvantaged individuals are, the more inaccessible justice becomes.”
The charity is seeking a range of reforms, including an effective legal aid system, with less restrictive financial eligibility criteria and greater coverage of the scheme to allow for access in cases involving employment, discrimination, housing and homelessness.
Ms Barry said homelessness is “one of the most challenging issues facing Ireland today”.
- Press Association