The number of people inquiring about free legal advice increased last year, with family law issues and credit and debt problems prompting most of the contacts.
The Free Legal Advice Centre’s (FLAC) annual report, published today, showed 13,741 phone calls were made to its information service last year — up 10% on 2012.
There was a 6.3% rise in the number of people calling in to one of its 81 centres in 2013, meaning 27,546 individual contacts made to FLAC last year. In 2008, it dealt with almost 17,000 contacts.
The surge in the number of contacts related to debt and credit issues prompted FLAC to demand continuing reform of debt laws.
Of the 13,805 contacts made with law centres, the amount linked to credit and debt went up 26.5% last year.
Similarly, with the 13,741 phone calls made to FLAC, the volume of credit and debt calls rose by 9.4%.
Family law is still by far the most prevalent topic raised by people contacting FLAC, responsible for a third of calls.
FLAC director general Noeline Blackwell said: “Clearly, people need help with legal problems and they cannot afford to seek it out of their own resources.
“The State civil legal aid service, the Legal Aid Board, deals primarily with family law issues and requires applicants to have a disposable income of less than €18,000 per annum; even if you pass the means test, in some parts of the country you will wait up to a year for even an initial consultation with a State lawyer. This cannot be seen as satisfying the right of access to justice.”
Ms Blackwell said personal debt issues “continue to dominate the national agenda”, with an “urgent need for better solutions”.
FLAC said there was a case for the establishment of a separate out-of-court debt settlement system to independently adjudicate on debt issues; a need for a “holistic approach” to cases; and that government policy should focus on keeping people in their homes as far as is possible.
“Ultimately, the State must rebalance the unfair distribution of power between banks and consumers in a fairer way and remember that it cannot leave matters of public policy in the hands of a for-profit financial services industry,” Ms Blackwell said.
The report highlighted some other areas of concern raised by members of the public, such as issues in the social welfare appeals system where legitimate claims were refused but later granted after “what is most often a lengthy and stressful appeal period”.
* The report is available to read at www.flac.ie
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