FLAC urges Flanagan to increase legal aid budget and scrap fees for domestic abuse victims

FLAC urges Flanagan to increase legal aid budget and scrap fees for domestic abuse victims

The CEO of FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) yesterday called on Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to increase the legal aid budget to meet surging demand and to put an end to legal aid fees for victims of domestic abuse.

The recently appointed Fine Gael minister joined new FLAC CEO Éilís Barry and chairperson Peter Ward SC to launch FLAC’s 2016 Annual Report at their central offices on Lower Dorset Street. Lord Mayor of Dublin, Michéal Mac Donncha, was also in attendance.

The report shows that the demand for free legal advice across Ireland is surging. FLAC’s 171 volunteers have given basic legal advice to a total of 12,229 people. By far the most frequent issue that people sought advice for were issues related to family law which made up 24 per cent of callers, followed closely by queries relating to landlord & tenant law (8.6 per cent) and employment law (7.9 per cent).

A significant number of the family law cases involved instances of domestic abuse. Ms Barry said that FLAC has observed that the fee requirement for legal aid has acted as a barrier to vulnerable people seeking access to justice.

Currently, a fee of €130 is required before a person can use the Legal Aid Board. This fee may be waived in certain circumstances, such as domestic abuse, if the Board receives an application from the victim. However, FLAC believes that this fee waiver should be made automatic for domestic abuse victims, who are often financially dependent upon their abusers and therefore more likely to avoid seeking legal advice because of the fee.

Mr Flanagan acknowledged these calls, maintaining that fees for legal aid were intended primarily to prevent vexatious claims, and very much regretted that citizens were avoiding seeking legal advice in situations involving domestic abuse. Mr Flanagan said that the fee policy in relation to domestic abuse victims is currently under review, and that a decision on the issue will be issued before the end of the year.

FLAC also said that surging demand for legal advice necessitates that the Government increase its legal aid budget. Ms Barry pointed to the ‘excessive waiting time’ for consultation, where some people have had to wait up to 36 weeks before an initial 45-minute appointment.

FLAC identified the marked increase in the number of people seeking advice for economic and financial problems, such as landlord & tenant law, employment law and personal credit and debt crises, as a contributing factor to these long waiting periods.

Ms Barry said the long waiting times are reflective of the strains put on ordinary citizens by the economic downturn, the effects of which are still clearly being felt. This issue in particular was addressed by FLAC in its Accessing Justice in Hard Times report of February 2016, which made several recommendations to the government, including a significant increase in the budget for legal aid.

Ms Barry welcomed the deferral of the Legal Aid Board’s plan to deal with the rising demand by restricting access to ‘priority cases’, but told Irish Legal News that the onus is now on the Government to “recognise that the Legal Aid Board is a vital part of the administration of justice and the rule of law… and as a vital service must be protected by budgeting for adequate financial resources”.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Sinn Féin’s Michéal Mac Donncha, echoed Ms Barry’s calls for increased funds of legal aid, noting “the significant proportion of their work dealing with housing issues”, in particular the stark increase of people seeking legal advice in relation to mortgage arrears and disputes over rent.

He said the current housing crisis is bound to lead to yet people seeking affordable legal advice, which in turn will necessitate the Government allocating more resources to legal aid services.

Kevin Burns

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