DAVID Byrne, Denis McCullough, Vivian Lavan and Ian Candy are not, collectively, household names in Ireland, but they should be. It was these four remarkable people who 50 years ago established the Free Legal Advice Centres which helped bring access to justice to thousands of people in civil cases in Ireland..
The four founders each went on to enjoy successful careers: future attorney general and EU commissioner David Byrne; High Court judge Vivian Lavin (who died in 2011); Ian Candy, later a magistrate in Hong Kong, and Denis McCullough SC. They were still law students when the service was launched on the Gay Byrne radio show.
It was largely through their voluntary efforts and that of the hundreds of students, solicitors and barristers who followed them that access to civil legal aid was finally put on a statutory footing. It also helped to expose a generation of many young middle-class lawyers to social problems that would have been outside their normal range of experience or knowledge. At the same time, it has, from its inception, been grounded in the belief that access to justice by all is a basic human right.
In the early years, much of the efforts of volunteers was centered on campaigning to secure access to the courts for family law clients, a position helped greatly when the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in a case taken by Cork woman Josey Airey, that a right to a free hearing includes a right to legal representation. This eventually led to the establishment of the state's legal aid service.
FLAC has grown and expanded over the past five decades but has never deviated from its core values. It continues to campaign for a fairer and more accessible civil legal aid system while, at the same time, expanding the services it offers to include welfare law, consumer credit and debt. In the latter instance, that includes work on over-indebtedness and personal insolvency.
In recent years FLAC has also grown into a powerful lobbying force while dutifully avoiding party political affiliations. It works with state agencies like the Law Reform Commission and the Legal Aid Board while keeping its all-important independence and its voluntary status. The 2012 Personal Insolvency Act resulted from recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission which, in turn, acknowledged the work done on the problem of over-indebtedness by FLAC. Its dogged pursuit of justice prompted reform of consumer protective legislation in 2017.
The 50th anniversary of FLAC is a cause for both celebration and commiseration. Celebration because its purpose continues to be focused on offering legal assistance to those who need it most in circumstances where the state fails in its duty to do so. Commiseration because the services that FLAC offers are needed as much as ever.