Legal Aid Board reports significant increase in demand for legal services
The Legal Aid Board today (19 December 2012) published its 2011 Annual Report and Accounts. The Board provides civil legal aid and advice to those who cannot afford to retain a solicitor through its nationwide network of law centres. It also offers legal services for those seeking asylum through its Refugee Legal Service. Since November last, the Board has also assumed responsibility for the Family Mediation Service.
The report shows that the Legal Aid Board received 18,657 applications for civil legal aid and advice in 2011, up 9% on the previous year. This followed a 21% increase in 2010 and 18% in 2009. Since the end of 2006, demand for services has increased by 93%. In total, the Board’s law centres processed 17,825 cases in 2011, up 7% on 2009, while 4,862 cases were referred out to private practitioners. Referrals to private practitioners were lower in 2011 due to budgetary constraints.
The Board sees this sustained increase in demand as being driven by two main factors. Firstly, and most significantly, the continued economic downturn has meant that a greater number of persons are now satisfying the means test which allows them to avail of the legal services provided by the Board. Secondly, evidence points to a greater need for certain legal services during times of economic distress, particularly in areas such as family law, debt and employment.
The only area of the Board’s operations that did not see an increase in applications last year was the Refugee Legal Service, which provides legal services to asylum seekers, where there was a drop of 32% in new clients in 2010 to 979. This was consistent with the falling number of asylum applications in the State in recent years.
The scope of activity of the Board was expanded in 2011. The Board took over responsibility for the Family Mediation Service from the Family Support Agency in November 2011 and responsibility for the Garda Station Advice ad-hoc Scheme transferred to the Board from the Department of Justice and Equality in October.
Commenting on the report, the Chairperson of the Legal Aid Board, Ms Muriel Walls, noted that the main feature of the Board’s operating environment over the last few years has been the significant increase in demand for services across the law centre network. Also, and in common with other public service organisations, the Board faces an ongoing challenge of meeting service needs with reduced manpower resources for the foreseeable future. The Board has responded to this in a proactive manner by restructuring services and developing new service delivery mechanisms to maximise the use of available resources. These include the streamlining of financial assessment procedures, the operation of an ‘advice only’ service on a pilot basis, the integration of the Refugee Legal Services with law centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway and the provision of a specialist service in respect of both medical negligence and childcare cases. Significant progress was also made in the development of a new Board-wide legal case management system which will enable the Board to increase efficiencies and to effectively manage risk.
Ms Walls also noted the expansion of the Board’s remit during 2011. The Board successfully managed the transfer of the Family Mediation Service to the organisation from the Family Support Agency. Progress was also made in preparing the organisation for the transfer of responsibility for criminal legal aid from the Department of Justice and Equality and other agencies to the Board. Responsibility for the Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme transferred to the Board at the beginning of October 2011.
The Board’s Chief Executive, Dr. Moling Ryan also acknowledged that the increase in demand experienced has put considerable pressure on the Board’s capacity to deliver a timely service at some of its law centres. An increase of 7% in cases processed by the Board’s law centre network has coincided with a reduction of 4.7% in staffing numbers over the course of the year. He noted that the Board operates a ‘mixed model’ of service delivery whereby the services of private sector solicitors and barristers are utilised to complement the main service provided by the Board’s own solicitors. Although waiting times for a full appointment with a solicitor have increased beyond the target time of four months in more than two thirds of Board law centres, matters considered to be priority cases get immediate or near immediate service. These include cases of domestic violence, child abduction, applications by the State to take children into care and cases where statutory time limits are close to expiry. In 2011, some 15% of all cases dealt with by the Board’s law centres came within this category.
Dr. Ryan referred to a number of initiatives introduced during 2011 to better manage services including the integration of the Refugee Legal Service into the law centre network and the operation of the early advice service in law centres. The review of the early advice service will inform the introduction of a major new service initiative in 2012. This will involve the introduction of a ‘triage service’ whereby all applicants will be offered an initial advice appointment with a solicitor within a period of 4 weeks. Advice on the legal process and referral of some cases to other more suitable resolution processes will form part of this service. It is noted that although this will address a pressing need, it will not fully address the impact of the greatly increased demand for services.
Both Ms. Walls and Dr. Ryan highlighted the Board’s launch of an integrated mediation initiative based in Dublin in conjunction with the Courts Service and the Family Mediation Service. People proposing to issue proceedings in Dolphin House in respect of custody, access or guardianship are offered immediate information on mediation as an option to resolve matters. Applicants for legal services there in such cases are provided with the option of early referral to mediation. The review of the initiative’s operation demonstrates that there are clear benefits to this approach, both cost-based and societal. Over 300 applicants, who would otherwise have sought court-related remedies to their family law disputes, instead found resolution through mediation. This initiative has resulted in a more effective use of resources in both the Courts Service and the Board while addressing client needs in a less adversarial and less costly setting than the Courts system.
Highlights from the Legal Aid Board’s 2011 Annual Report and Accounts
The Board’s law centre network for general civil matters dealt with a 9% increase in applications in 2011. This followed a 21% increase in 2010 on the 2009 figure. The level of demand in 2011 was approximately 93% greater than it was at the end of 2006.
The number of new clients registering with the Board’s Refugee Legal Service fell by 32%, in line with the reduction in recent years of the number of persons seeking asylum in this country.
Exchequer funding for the civil legal aid service fell marginally from €24.22 million in 2010 to €24.12 million in 2011. For the Refugee Legal Service, the Exchequer funding provision fell by over 21% to €6.24 million. Overall, staffing levels fell by 4.7% over the course of the year, from 359 wholetime equivalents at the end of 2010 to 342 at the end of 2011.
The number of cases processed during the year by the law centre network increased by 7% to over 17,800. The number of child care cases increased by 12%.
The Board’s remit was expanded in 2011. On 1 November, the Board took over responsibility for the Family Mediation Service (FMS) from the Family Support Agency. The FMS provides a mediation service from 16 locations nationally. Responsibility for the Garda Station Advice ad-hoc Scheme transferred to the Board from the Department of Justice and Equality on 1 October.
Waiting times for an appointment with a solicitor came under increasing pressure in 2011 due to increased demand and the constraints on the Board’s resources. The issue of accessibility to timely legal services continued to prove difficult in 2011. While the Board provides a priority service or effectively prioritises a significant number of its clients, the waiting time for a first appointment with a solicitor for other matters was in excess of four months in twenty one of the Board’s law centres at the end of the year.
However, the Board continued to provide a priority service where it considered that an immediate or near immediate, service was needed. These include cases of domestic violence, child abduction, cases involving applications by the State to take children into care, and cases that had statutory time limits close to expiry.
The Board continued to make use of private practitioners to help reduce the numbers of clients waiting for legal services. The private practitioner service currently operates for certain family law matters in the District Court. The Scheme for involving private practitioners in divorce and separation matters in the Circuit Court has been constrained for budgetary reasons.
The Board operated an ‘advice only’ service in most of its law centres where the waiting time was in excess of 3 months. The service was evaluated in 2011 and on foot of that evaluation a recommendation was made that a ‘triage’ service be piloted in 2012. The objective of this approach will be to ensure that every applicant gets an appointment with a solicitor for the purpose of getting legal advice within a period of one month.
In 2011 the Board, as part of its promotion of non court based dispute resolution in the first instance in family disputes, engaged with the Family Mediation Service and the Courts Service to pilot a ‘mediation initiative’ in the District Family Court premises in Dublin. Persons presenting at the District Court in relation to family disputes are provided with information on attending mediation. A key aspect is that mediators are on site in the same building enabling ease of access to this process.
The Board enhanced its presence in the District Family Court in Dublin during 2011 in order to develop its capacity to respond promptly to demands placed on it for legal services for parents who are at risk of having their children taken into the care of the State (HSE).
Significant progress was made during the year on the development of a comprehensive legal case management system (EOS) which will be available across the law centre network. The system will enable greater flexibility and effectiveness in the use of the Board’s staffing resources. The system is expected to be operative in mid 2012.
The Board hosted its annual family law conference in June 2011. The theme of the Conference was ‘Protecting the Welfare of Children in Family Law Disputes.’ The conference was addressed by a number of high profile speakers on various aspects of civil law in Ireland and abroad.
For further information, contact:
Dr Moling Ryan, Chief Executive 087 6474980
Ms Eileen Bowden, Director of Corporate Services 087 6287432
Ms Fiona Morley, Manager, Research & Information Unit, 087 9677279