Hard-pressed taxpayers and mortgage-holders have “had it up to their necks” as far as free legal aid is concerned, Limerick County Council heard yesterday.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has been called on to carry out a major reform of the system.
The council passed a notice of motion that defendants in future contribute to their own legal costs. The council also wants a certain number of free legal aid solicitors appointed on a fixed contracts, instead of the current system whereby solicitors are paid on a case-by-case basis.
Cllr Kevin Sheahan (FF), a former garda, said while all sectors face cutbacks, the Department of Justice’s free legal aid “pot” has remained fully intact.
“People whose mortgages are in arrears, who have always worked and who never broken the law, are being told make certain lifestyle changes and have to account for how they spend what money they have. They have to pay their bills. It galls them to see people getting free legal aid driving off from courts in big cars and we are now asking that these people contribute to their own legal costs.
“People on medical cards now face cuts, even people on cancer treatment. The public are angry that there has been no change to free legal aid spending. This is not fair on the people who are paying the piper.
“In my heart of hearts I believe there is no justification for the amount being paid on free legal aid in the times that are in it. Enough is enough; we have had it up to our necks. When people are trying to survive new taxes, there is a responsibility on the Government and Mr Shatter and Mr [Michael] Noonan to put their heads together and recognise money must be spent in a way which the general public will accept.”
Cllr James Collins (FF) proposed that the motion should include a call for the setting up a fixed panel of free-aid solicitors who would be paid an annual salary, rather than the current system in which solicitors get a fee for every client they get.
Cllr Bill O’Donnell (FG), a solicitor, supported the notice of motion and commended Judge Eugene O’Kelly for taking rigorous steps at Limerick District Court before granting free legal aid.
In a recent case, Judge O’Kelly revoked free legal aid granted to a defendant who failed to show up in court because he was on a foreign holiday with his partner and their three children.
Mr O’Donnell said: “A person seeking legal aid from Judge O’Kelly must prove their bona fides and it’s no longer good enough for a solicitor to stand up and apply on behalf of the applicant. There has been a huge reduction in fees paid to solicitors and barristers for a unit of work under free legal aid, but I don’t know if this will appease public opinion. A lot more needs to be done.”
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