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Legal Aid Board reports steady demand for legal services

The Legal Aid Board today (16th December 2016) published its 2015 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 and through the use of private solicitors. Since November 2011, the Board has also assumed responsibility for the provision of State funded family mediation services.

Demand for the Board’s civil legal aid services in 2015 increased by about 2% on the 2014 figure. The Report shows that the Legal Aid Board received 16,793 applications for civil legal aid and advice (including asylum related matters). The area where applications increased most notably was asylum / international protection where the numbers rose from 902 to 1,537, an increase of 70%. In total, the Board’s law centres dealt with 17,959 cases which was a decrease of about 400 on 2014, while 5,534 cases were referred out to private solicitors.

Commenting on the report, the current Chairperson, Philip O’Leary and the Chief Executive, John McDaid noted that while waiting times for legal services remain a significant challenge for the Board, the numbers waiting for services had reduced from 3,412 at the start of the year to 2,319 on the 31st December 2015 and have since fallen to 1,957 as of the 1st December 2016. A challenge for the Board is to maintain the downward trajectory in terms of numbers waiting for services. The Board continued to provide a priority service in respect of certain areas such as domestic violence, child abduction and child care cases. These accounted for 17% of all applications in 2015. The Board is very conscious that undue delay can have a negative impact not just on the person seeking legal services but also on the broader administration of justice in the family area. A very welcome development was the increase in funding of over €1.6m in 2016 and a further increase for 2017.

The Board continues to extensively utilise private solicitors, particularly for District Court matters, to assist with the delivery of services. In 2015 more than 5,500 applicants presenting with a family law problem were advised and represented by private solicitors. 2015 saw the commencement of a pilot project involving the use of private solicitors in public law child care matters.

The Board continued to develop synergies between its civil legal aid services and family mediation services. The Board now has a co-located law centre and family mediation office in Jervis St in Dublin. Projects involving the attendance of family mediators at the courthouse on family law days were maintained in Dublin, Cork, Naas, Limerick and Co Tipperary. Further projects have since been developed in Ennis and Dundalk. A pilot project requiring that applicants for civil legal aid for certain family law disputes, mainly where a dependent child is involved, attend an information session about family mediation prior to being granted a legal aid certificate to take or defend court proceedings continued in Cork and was expanded to include the Athlone and Castlebar areas also. (The requirement does not apply to cases involving domestic violence).

The transfer of responsibility for the management of the main criminal legal aid scheme remained outstanding at the end of 2015. The transfer requires legislation which is being drafted. Responsibility for the administration of a number of the criminal legal aid ad hoc schemes, namely the Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme, the Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme, and the Criminal Assets Bureau Legal Aid Scheme previously transferred to the Board.

Highlights from the Legal Aid Board’s 2015 Annual Report and Accounts

There were close to 16,800 applications for civil legal services to the Board in 2015, which was an increase of about 2% on the figure for 2014.

The number of new clients registering with the Board for asylum related services increased by 70%.

Just under 18,000 cases were processed during the year by the law centre network.

Waiting times for an appointment with a solicitor in civil legal aid cases remained a challenge though there was a significant improvement during the year to the extent that the numbers waiting for legal services fell from over 3,400 at the start of the year to just over 2,300 on the 31st December 2015.

The Board continued to provide a priority service where it considered that an immediate or near immediate service was needed. These included 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 although some restrictions are in place for budgetary reasons. The Scheme for involving private practitioners in divorce and separation matters in the Circuit Court has been constrained for budgetary reasons though there was an increase in its use throughout the year.

The Board continued to operate a triage approach in those law centres where a full legal service could not be provided relatively promptly. The aim of the triage approach is to ensure that all applicants get some level of legal advice in a timely fashion. Thus the waiting times in respect of a number of centres set out the time waiting for a triage appointment as well as those for a second consultation (where a second consultation is deemed necessary).

On the criminal legal aid side expenditure on the Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme in 2015 came to €2.75 million, down from €3.2 million in 2014. Expenditure on the Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme came to €1.4 million, up from €1 million in 2014. The likelihood is that expenditure on this Scheme will continue to increase in the light of the entitlement of persons in custody to have their solicitor in attendance during interview. Expenditure on the Criminal Assets Bureau Legal Aid Scheme was under €180,000, down from €327,000 in 2014 Expenditure on these criminal law related schemes is discharged by the Department of Justice and Equality and does not come from the Board’s budget.

Waiting times for family mediation services were maintained at three months or less in every centre except one. 1,547 first mediation sessions took place at the general family mediation offices compared to 1,526 in 2014. There were 867 concluded agreements compared to 904 in 2014.

The permanent mediation presence in the District Family Court premises at Dolphin House in Dublin which was established in 2011 as part of the Board’s promotion of non-court based family dispute resolution remained in place. 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. Similar initiatives continue in Naas, Cork, Limerick and Co Tipperary.

Exchequer funding for the Legal Aid Board in 2015 was €32.471 million. This included provision for the traditional legal services provided by the Board as well as for the provision of family mediation services. It also included a provision for the costs of administering the ad hoc criminal legal aid schemes.

For further information, contact:
Mr John McDaid, Chief Executive, 087 6597358