Demand for civil legal aid fell sharply during pandemic year

Demand for civil legal aid fell sharply during pandemic year

Demand for civil legal aid fell sharply last year as public health restrictions were put in place, new figures from the Legal Aid Board reveal.

The number of applicants seeking civil legal aid services from the Board’s law centres totalled 14,383 in 2020, down by nearly a fifth on the previous year, according to the Board’s annual report for 2020.

Chief executive John McDaid said: “The most notable area of law where the drop occurred was, not surprisingly given the added difficulties crossing borders, in the area of international protection which saw a 53 per cent decrease in the numbers applying on the previous year.

“While the level of detail is not set out in this report, the drop in demand generally tracked the restrictions that were in place. For example demand at the law centres in April, the first full month of significant restrictions, was 68 per cent lower than it was in April 2019.”

However, Mr McDaid acknowledged that the drop in demand “may be a delayed demand rather than a falling off in the need for the Board’s legal aid and advice services”.

“Indeed it is possible that the longer term impact of the pandemic on aspects of life may result in an increase in demand for those services,” he said. “The Board and I will be monitoring this carefully during the course of 2021.”

Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of applicants in 2020 had their cases either prioritised or quickly referred to a private solicitor on one of the Board’s panels.

James Browne, minister of state for law reform, youth justice and immigration, said: “My department is grateful to the Board for its delivery of key supports to citizens as part of the government’s response to Covid-19.

“The Board showed ongoing professionalism and commitment to ensuring access to justice for those of limited means throughout the pandemic, and took specific measures to assist those at increased risk of domestic violence.”

Philip O’Leary, the Board’s outgoing chairperson, noted: “A development during 2020 that I wholly endorse was the Department of Justice’s commitment to a broad review of the civil legal aid scheme.

“The Board and I are conscious that the civil legal aid legislation dates back to 1995 and that society and events have moved on. New legal issues have arisen and there are significant amounts of new laws that have or potentially have a legal aid aspect.

“We look forward to working with the Department and inputting into the review. I am confident that the review will result in an improved civil legal aid system.”

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