Families could lose their homes and people who beat their partners may go unpunished without free legal aid, the Chief Executive of Free Legal Advice Centres has warned. Eilis Barry said that vulnerable families could not enjoy the rights and protections afforded under new domestic violence and conveyance legislation without legal representation.
“If people are not represented in these situations, the effectiveness of the legislation is reduced," she said.
The new Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act aims to make it more difficult for courts to grant possession orders for family homes. But without legal representation, the arguments may not be made in court and these families may lose their homes unnecessarily.
"The rights provided in that legislation are only good if they are enforced," Ms Barry said.
Ms Barry was speaking ahead of an event to mark the 50th anniversary of FLAC, an organisation which strives to make the justice system fairer for vulnerable citizens.
“Access to justice is really important and it's what FLAC is all about. And when vulnerable people come with multiple issues, if you provide legal aid to help in one area like social welfare, it can have a knock-on effect in other areas.
It provides a gateway to other rights, like housing, and ultimately creates greater social inclusion. Legal aid is crucial so that people can hold the State and local government to account as Josie Airey did 40 years ago.
The late Ms Airey, a Corkwoman, went to the European Court of Human Rights when she could not get free legal aid to request a separation from her violent husband.
At the time, only criminals in Ireland were granted free legal aid. But supported by FLAC and represented by Mary Robinson, Ms Airey took the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights and won her case in October 1979.
Ms Airey's relatives are due to attend FLAC's event on Friday night at which Ms Airey's lawyer, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Robinson, will be the guest speaker.
Despite huge progress since Ms Airey's legal battle, Ms Barry said that there are still limitations within the free legal aid system. Free civil legal aid is means tested and can only be accessed by those on €18,000 a year or less; it is not available for all legal disputes and the funding is limited.
Ms Barry said: “We are calling for a complete root-and-branch review of legal aid, including a review of the very strict means test, long delays at some centres and exclusions and exceptions. There are exceptions in the Legal Aid Act, you're not entitled to it in eviction cases.
“If you are sexually harassed or racially abused at work, there is no provision for legal aid. We would argue that these exceptions shouldn't stand.
“The Chief Justice is calling for broader and deeper access to legal aid. The Joint Oireachats Committee for Justice and Equality supports our calls for a review as does the Legal Aid Board. We're hoping that the Justice Minister hears our calls and instigates a review."