The report, entitled ‘Accessing Justice in Hard Times’ by the Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac), claimed issues that existed before the recession regarding shortcomings in the civil legal aid scheme were made worse by the economic crash.
According to the report: “In Ireland, while some efforts were made to mitigate against the negative impact of the economic crisis, the regressive nature of most of the changes to the state-funded civil legal aid scheme underlined the state disregard for the right to equal access to justice.”
Flac said restrictions, cuts, and delays disproportionately impacted on vulnerable and marginalised groups.
The report said the need for legal services in areas such as debt, housing, and social welfare and employment grew during the recession but were largely excluded from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme.
“As a result of their continued exclusion and greater relevance, more individuals were not in a position to effectively represent themselves in proceedings connected to these areas, especially where the issues involved were complex,” it said.
The report also highlighted issues with the Legal Aid Board itself, such as cuts to funding and staff which “took their toll” in the face of increased demand for its services. There was an increase in child care cases, waiting lists grew, and “delays in accessing legal services increased exponentially, denying people their right of timely access to justice while exacerbating their existing problems”.
“Given that the stated purpose of the civil legal aid scheme in Ireland is to provide legal aid and advice to socio-economically disadvantaged people, the State’s actions during the recession can be seen as discriminatory,” said Flac.
The report also criticised the qualifying criteria for free legal aid, particularly regarding people who might be asset rich but cash poor, such as farmers.
It also claimed, citing figures from the UK, that money spent on legal aid can actually save the State money in the longer term.
Among the recommendations made in the report is an increase in resources and staff for the Legal Aid Board, an expansion of its remit, greater oversight by the Oireachtas and an ending of the requirement for victims of domestic violence to make financial contributions for legal services.
Noeline Blackwell, outgoing director general of Flac, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme the civil legal aid scheme was no longer fit for purpose and needed to be restructured.