Oireachtas committee hears evidence in support of multi-party actions bill

Eilis Barry

The Oireachtas joint committee on justice and equality heard evidence this morning in support of a private member’s bill to provide for the bringing of multi-party actions before the Irish courts.

Evidence was heard from Eilis Barry, CEO of FLAC; Dr Joanne Blennerhassett, lecturer at UCD Sutherland School of Law; and Dave Coleman, partner at Coleman Legal Partners.

Ms Barry said FLAC welcomes Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire’s Multi-Party Actions Bill and “the intention behind it to increase access to justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals”.

However, she said FLAC’s greatest concern was the lack of legal aid for multi-party litigation, which “needs to be addressed to make the bill effective, particularly for people on low incomes”.

She disagreed with the Government’s position that the bill is critically flawed because it is based on a Law Reform Commission report that envisaged the introduction of multi-party actions through changes to the Rules of Superior Courts rather than primary legislation.

Ms Barry said there was “nothing in principle or in law that would prevent the changes from coming about by primary legislation”, and that it would be “constitutionally suspect” if the Oireachtas was somehow barred from legislating to enhance access to justice.

However, she suggested that the bill could be amended to provide for the Rules to be amended to give effect to the bill.

Dr Blennerhassett, who authored A Comparative Examination of Multi-Party Actions, told the committee that the existing mechanisms for multi-party actions in Ireland were “inadequate” and “rarely invoked”. She pointed out that multi-party actions were not allowed for tort cases, and it was “not possible to get damages or legal aid”.

The bill, she said, would “make mass litigation more manageable” for the courts, but would also require “changes as to how costs are currently decided”.

Mr Coleman, who specialises in multi-party actions, litigation and public and administrative law, told the committee it was “very, very important we have a proper system of justice for mass tort in this country”.

He added: “It’s not about the lawyers, it’s about the citizens in this state and the fact they are completely denied their access to justice despite the fact we pride ourselves on our constitution.”