The Legal Aid Board has warned of the potential for "poverty traps" because eligibility criteria for its services has not changed since 2006, and also said the current Covid-19 pandemic could result in a delayed surge for its help at a time when its backlog of cases had grown.
Civil legal aid and advice is provided through 30 full-time and 12 part-time centres around the country and in the foreword to its 2019 annual report, LAB chairperson Philip O'Leary said he was conscious that the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impact "are likely to give rise to a very significant 'delayed' demand for the board's services and many of those experiencing difficult family situations or finding themselves with financial problems brought on or exacerbated by the crisis, will need legal advice and representation in increasing numbers as the restrictions unwind."
He also said it was "disappointing to have to report that the numbers waiting for legal services at the end of the year had increased to a figure of 2,019 from a figure of 1,754 at the start of the year".
He said this was bucking the trend of recent years and he was also conscious, despite improvements since the start of this year, that the pandemic could impact on those waiting times.
Chief executive John McDaid echoed those concerns and Mr O'Leary said: "The board is reflecting carefully upon how it can meet any surge in demand that may arise as we emerge from the crisis."
He said the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid had not changed substantially since 2006 and so there was still no discretion to provide assistance to those who might be marginally outside the financial limits.
He made the comment in referral to people already in receipt of Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) supports.
Almost a third of first appointments facilitated by the Legal Aid Board last year were priority matters, including domestic violence cases, child abduction cases, and proceedings where children were being taken into care.
The Legal Aid Board's 2019 annual report also shows that in the five-year period since 2014 the number of referrals to District Court Family Law Private Solicitor Panels increased by almost 50% to 7,239 last year. In the same period the number of referrals to the International Protection Private Solicitor Panels more than doubled to 2,061.
The report also shows that nine potential victims of human trafficking referred to the Legal Aid Board by gardaí last year applied for legal services - one related to labour exploitation and another to criminal purposes while eight related to sexual exploitation.
Overall there were 24,356 applications made to the Legal Aid Board for services last year, with more than 15,000 of those applications for civil legal aid.
The second most common category was family mediation (5,222 applications), then international protection (2,539) and the Abhaile service (1,137, another annual increase), which helps homeowners find a resolution to their home mortgage arrears.
With 6,191 civil legal aid cases completed last year, a 6% increase, the overall number of 17,997 applications to law centres last year was a slight decrease on the 2018 figure.
Most of those seeking assistance from the LAB had a family issue and Mr O'Leary said alternatives to the courts process would become more important.
He also noted the rise in the number of people seeking international protection in Ireland and those applying for legal aid for representation regarding their international protection claims.