Legal Aid Board urged to reverse family law move

Senior barristers have demanded the Legal Aid Board immediately reverse a decision that would impact on family law cases, including the possibility of adding to already lengthy waiting lists.

The Legal Aid Board announced it would restrict, to priority matters only, referrals to the family law panel of the Private Practitioner District Court Panel, describing it as a temporary measure until the end of the year in an effort to control the budget.

The Council of the Bar of Ireland said the move would very negatively impact those most in need of assistance and its chairman Paul McGarry SC said the decision needed to be immediately reversed.

“The most vulnerable members of our society depend on the services of the Legal Aid Board for family law matters and, for that reason this unilateral decision to cut referrals to the family law panel of the Private Practitioner District Court Panel is alarming in the extreme,” Mr McGarry said.

“The Private Practitioner District Court Panel is designed to complement the service provided by Law Centres and with the Law Centres already stretched, this decision will lead to unacceptable delays for those seeking assistance with the most sensitive of family law matters and could potentially have very serious consequences.”

Child law solicitor Gareth Noble had already tweeted that family law lists were likely to lengthen as a result of the move, and senior Family Law practitioner Seán OhUallacháin SC said: “Delays in dealing with access, guardianship and custody matters raise serious child protection concerns and could potentially impinge on parental and child constitutional rights.”

The Children’s Rights Alliance said the Legal Aid Board currently refers about 500 cases a month to a panel of private solicitors for advice and representation in family law matters including access, custody, guardianship and maintenance. Under the proposals from the Board only priority cases would be referred, meaning families will now have to go to Legal Aid Board centres to get legal advice and representation.

The Alliance’s CEO, Tanya Ward called for the decision to be reversed, claiming it would inevitably increase waiting times and delay families getting access to legal advice. Ms Ward said families must have an income under €18,000 to qualify for legal aid, and if the decision is implemented “children will suffer”.

The Board said the measure “will remain under active review”, with those involved in maintenance, access, guardianship and custody cases to apply and receive services from a law centre. A spokesman said: “It is acknowledged that this is likely to give rise to a level of delay as virtually all law centres are unable to provide services on demand and operate a waiting list system.”

Cases involving domestic violence or maintenance enforcement are unaffected by the measure and the spokesman said: “The Board is working to see if there are other solutions or savings that it can achieve that will enable it to lift the restrictions as soon as possible.”

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