The Legal Aid Board was so cash-strapped last year it reallocated funds earmarked for the Abhaile Scheme which helps people who are insolvent and in mortgage arrears.

In correspondence sent to the Department of Justice last summer, the Legal Aid Board highlighted the reasons for its decision — later reversed after a public outcry — to restrict, to priority matters only, referrals to the family law panel of the Private Practitioner District Court Panel.

The decision raised fears of adding to already long waiting lists in sensitive family law cases.

At the time, the Legal Aid Board said it was a temporary measure and would not affect cases involving domestic violence or maintenance enforcement.

The move was reversed at the end of July and correspondence released to the Irish Examiner under Freedom of Information shows the extent of the financial stress faced by the Legal Aid Board ahead of the initial announcement — including the diverting funds linked to the Abhaile Scheme.

In a letter to the director of corporate services in the department on July 25, Legal Aid Board chief executive John McDaid said following a half-yearly financial review “there is a considerable ‘red’ in the column for the year to date”.

Referring to the big reduction since 2013 in the number of people waiting for the board’s services and falls in average waiting times, Mr McDaid said: “The reality is that there has been a financial cost associated with this level of performance, and as a consequence the board’s resources are under considerable pressure across a number of areas of expenditure.”

He said that “in order to remain within our budgetary framework for 2017, we have allocated some of the funds that were earmarked for the Abhaile Scheme to other budget lines”.

“This is on the basis that there is likely to be a surplus of up to €1.2m from the €2.3m given specifically for the non-pay side for Abhaile for 2017 — a figure of €594,000 was also carried over into 2017 from the 2016 monies assigned to the Abhaile Scheme.”

He also highlighted the rising cost of the use of expert witnesses in cases, associated with the new provisions on the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 that relate to the ‘voice of the child’.

In later correspondence, Mr McDaid said the Legal Aid Board was going to postpone the restrictions “primarily on the basis of sweating down our staff numbers and probably deferring one property decision”, adding there could be advantages and also a “downside” to those actions.

He also referred to “uncertainties in relation to the Abhaile Scheme and in particular the number of PIA [Personal Insolvency Arrangement] review cases far exceeding the number contemplated when the scheme was being established”.

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