Legal aid applicants wait 2 years just to meet lawyers

Applicants for civil legal aid are waiting almost two years to secure the services of a solicitor as the Legal Aid Board struggles to deal with a 70% increase in demand in seven years.

Its annual report for 2013 shows there were 17,559 applications for civil legal services to the board last year, roughly similar to 2012’s total.

The report confirms a significant backlog in bringing cases to fruition — 4,033 cases dealt with in 2013 first saw an application for legal aid before 2011.

In a joint statement, board chairwoman Muriel Walls and chief executive Moling Ryan said: “We appreciate that in recent years Government spending was controlled across the entire public service. This created huge difficulties for the board in providing a timely service.

“The downturn in the economy led to a dramatic increase in the demand for services: up over 70% between 2006 and 2013.

“While we have introduced a number of initiatives to seek to manage this increase they have been insufficient to ensure that our clients are provided with the timely service the board aspires to provide.”

Waiting times to secure a solicitor vary greatly around the country. In a bid to speed up the system, the board set up a “triage” process where all applicants would be seen by a solicitor within a short time. That solicitor offers legal advice on the issue presented and also advises the applicant of actions he or she might take as well as other options that could be pursued.

By December 31, 2013, its offices at Cork’s South Mall had the longest waiting time — 12 months — to get an initial triage appointment. There was then a further two-month wait after the triage appointment had been given.

Gardiner Street in Dublin had no wait for a triage but a 20-month wait after the triage appointment was given.

That was in spite of the fact the board seeks to ensure a person who qualifies for civil legal aid will be offered an appointment with a solicitor within a maximum period of four months from the time the application is completed.

As a result, by year-end in 2013, there were 5,067 people waiting for legal services from a solicitor. That was up from 5,014 on the same day in 2012 and just 2,228 in 2009.

The board does have a “priority” service where it is considered an immediate or near immediate service is needed. Those include cases of domestic violence and child abduction.

Among the cases dealt with in 2013 were 4,675 separations, 4,646 divorces, 447 cases of domestic violence, and 108 around child abduction.

About 43% of divorce, separation and nullity cases completed in 2013 had been ongoing for longer than three years.


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