The effects of wrong and slow decisions on people depending on welfare payments need to be addressed, the head of the Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) has said.
In its 2015 annual report, the continuing impact of recessionary measures are highlighted by the prominence among over 28,000 queries of issues linked to recession and austerity, such as housing, debt and employment.
Flac chief executive officer Eilis Barry voiced the organisation’s concerns about the disproportionate impact of austerity on vulnerable groups. She singled out the high rate of successful appeals of initial refusals of social welfare applications.
“The [Social Welfare] Appeals Office’s own annual report for 2015 shows that nearly 60% of the total of 25,406 appeals on initial refusals of welfare applications were successful,” said Ms Barry.
“That indicates a pressing need for better first-instance decision-making.
“With appeals still taking on average almost five months to process, people are experiencing real hardship. We are particularly concerned about the average processing time of 18 weeks for appeals of supplementary welfare allowance, a payment designed as a safety net for those with no other means to survive.”
Highlighting concerns raised by the UN last year about the high number of decisions overturned, Ms Barry said more transparency and better consistency can only help vulnerable people and improve the Appeals Office’s efficiency.
The 21-week average time to decide all social welfare appeals last year was three weeks faster than in 2014. However, the 59% success rate on 25,406 appeals was higher than the 56.5% rate in 2014, according to that office’s 2015 report published in May.
Flac’s annual report, being published this morning, reveals that housing and landlord-tenant issues were the subject of almost 3,500 calls to its phone helpline last year. They accounted for more than one in five of all 15,866 queries last year, an increase of 62% on similar queries in 2014.
A further 2,129 (over 13%) helpline calls related to credit and debt or employment problems, while credit and debt were the topic of more than 1,000, nearly 8%, of the 12,881 queries received at Flac’s legal advice clinics in 21 counties.
The queries on credit and debt to both services were down on the previous year, including a 27% drop in queries to Flac clinics.
Family law was the other major issue on which advice was provided by Flac in 2015. Almost 7,600 (26%) of the total 28,747 queries to both services were on the topic, more than the combined queries in relation to housing, credit and debt.
Just under half of the 4,347 family law queries at advice clinics were about divorce or separation, while one third of those to the centres and to the helpline related to maintenance payments.
Fmac chairman Peter Ward paid tribute to the hundreds of volunteer lawyers who give free legal help every day. Wills and probate (2,043 queries), criminal (1,524) and consumer (1,394) law issues also represented significant portions of the workload last year.
Referring to the final conclusion last year of Lydia Foy’s case supported by Flac, when she received her birth certificate after 18 years of litigation to reflect her true gender, Mr Ward said that Dr Foy’s hard-fought victory shows that law is a key tool to access basic rights.
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