THE fundamental right to legal representation is still not available to all in Ireland and the recession is expected to make an already unsatisfactory situation worse, according to the Free Legal Aid Centres (FLAC).
FLAC research shows that of the three areas of law which those in financial hardship most commonly seek assistance — housing, social welfare and domestic violence — only the latter is covered by the State’s existing civil legal aid.
A FLAC survey of civil organisations in Dublin found that 77.5% of the organisations aided clients with housing difficulties, 77.5% with social welfare issues and 72.5% with domestic violence problems.
The survey found the major barriers to obtaining legal information are a lack of awareness that a legal issue exists (70%) and costs (70%). Perceived complexities (52.5%), a belief that the person would not be successful (50%) and literacy (47.5%) were the next most frequent barriers.
The report marking four decades of FLAC’s existence — Civil Legal Aid in Ireland, 40 Years On — also highlights extensive waiting times clients are facing before receiving assistance from state legal aid boards.
The FLAC survey found that of those who had successfully applied for civil legal aid, 42% waited for three months before their first consultation with a solicitor.
One man reported that the Legal Aid Board Law Centre had advised him that it would take six months to get an appointment with a solicitor and a further one month to make the initial application and to carry out the means test.
The FLAC report states: “While community organisations provide other vital services; they do not and nor is it their role to provide the legal services omitted by the civil legal aid scheme.”
It added: “Access to justice means more than access to civil legal aid and an appointment with a lawyer. It is about meeting equally the legal needs of every community in Ireland. It is about access to the courts and lawmakers, to service providers and basic information on legal rights and entitlements.”
Despite the long waiting times, in most circumstances civil legal aid is still not free. A person with a disposable income of €13,000 is liable to pay the maximum contribution of €150 for a consultation with a solicitor, unless “undue hardship” can be proved.
Labour TD Joe Costello said: “There is a whole range of areas where people still do not have access to legal recourse. With the recession likely to impact on legal aid funding and result in more people getting into financial difficulties, more problems are certainly emerging, in relation to housing in particular.”
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