Lawyer of the Month: Joan Crawford

Lawyer of the Month: Joan Crawford

Pictured: Joan Crawford, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board.

Talking with Joan Crawford, the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, is a refreshing engagement with positivity. It’s an approach she clearly brings to the office as well as to her many sporting and social interests.

The media frequently highlights the challenges facing the legal aid sector and Chief Justice Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell last year pointed these out, including the fact that it is available only on restricted grounds and is often subject to unrealistic means-tested thresholds.

While aware of these issues, Ms Crawford takes an energetically optimistic view, one informed by many years’ experience in general practice and local government, as well as extensive expertise in family law and mediation, child abduction and childcare cases.

Appointed to her current role in April 2023, her latest reason for a favourable construction on the board’s future was the opening late last month of a new national centre in Dublin’s Ballymun which is expected to help almost 3,000 people in its first year — the 34th such centre providing access to civil legal aid and advice to those who otherwise could not afford it.

Importantly, the board’s family mediation service will be co-located at the centre to help families who are divorcing, separating or living apart and includes child-inclusive and child-centred mediation.

“It was very important to me to open the Ballymun centre,” says Ms Crawford. “When I started in the Legal Aid Board some 29 years ago, it was in our law centre in Dublin city centre.

“At that time, many people from Ballymun had to come in on the bus to the centre and I always felt that as they, and those in the surrounding areas, represent such a big community that we should have a base here. I’m very proud of the fact that we now do.”

The services at this new centre include supported decision-making under the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015 and the Minceir/Traveller legal support service, which all add up to a comprehensive resource for the board’s clients.

Lawyer of the Month: Joan Crawford

Pictured: The official opening of the Legal Aid Board's new law and mediation centre in Ballymun.

The Legal Aid Board now has some 560 staff with a budget of €53 million. “We are the ninth biggest employer of solicitors in Ireland, and as a state organisation we’re the second biggest in the country regarding the number of solicitors we have,” Ms Crawford explains.

“Our aim is to grow the organisation and to let people know who we are, what we do, and how we can help them in their local community,” she says. ‘Community’ is a term that constantly recurs in conversation and is clearly key to the board’s endeavours.

“We are still growing and have done so substantially since I joined the organisation. But our basic message and aim is for people to come to us when they have a difficulty, a legal problem about which they need advice.”

While this is mostly in the civil arena, she notes that the Legal Aid Board also carries out a small amount of representation for victims of sexual offences.

She is, she adds, very committed to furthering the role of mediation. “The family mediation service came under the Legal Aid Board in 2011 and we have also grown that service since, looking particularly at where it can make progress when there are better ways of dealing with problems than going to court.

“I’ve been promoting the mediation service consistently and it’s really part of our strategy, one that involves helping people to understand how mediation can help them to work out an arrangement with an experienced and highly trained mediator instead of going through the court system.”

In her view, the court-based services are probably the most successful because people are going into the court building.

“When they are diverted into the mediation service they can talk to somebody face-to-face who can then encourage them to go down that route, instead of into the litigation — or sometimes an adversarial — route which can be very fractious and can take a long time,” she explains.

Previously a regional manager and managing solicitor for the board, Ms Crawford has “come through the ranks” to reach her current position, though her initial exposure to the possibilities of a legal career initially came through a summer job with a solicitor friend.

Quickly concluding that becoming a solicitor was her vocation, she completed a diploma in legal studies, followed by an apprenticeship with the same firm she had worked with during the summer. “And then I worked my way through the Law Society exams and qualified in 1996,” she recalls.

A graduate of University College Dublin and the Institute of Public Administration, Ms Crawford also holds a Master’s degree in public management and diplomas in European law, childcare law and mental health and capacity law.

“My father was involved in various charity organisations over the years when I was growing up in Terenure in south Dublin and my mum was very good at helping and looking after people locally who perhaps, at a particular time, needed help when they were ill or their children needed looked after.

“I saw that and thought it was quite normal – so I was naturally drawn to this type of work, something that makes a difference for people. While I enjoyed my previous work as a solicitor, I’ve been doing this now for 29 years and I’m very glad I made the change.”

Unsurprisingly, Ms Crawford says she relishes a challenge. “Working at the board you can come up with new ideas and see if they work. When I was a solicitor, I very much enjoyed meeting clients and over the years I’ve met some wonderful people who have really appreciated the help they got from the Legal Aid Board.”

She’s also appreciative about the feeling of collegiality at the board, both among the solicitors and the wider staff. “They are extremely good colleagues to each other and help each other out which is terrific.

“Many of those are younger women who are now seeing what a positive impact they can have on an organisation whose executive management team was very male-dominated for a long while.

“They now see that it is possible to aim for that themselves and there is certainly an increasing number of women in our executive management team.”

Teamwork extends beyond the office for Ms Crawford. A committed rugby fan, she retains a love for the sport, coaching mini rugby for several years and setting up women’s teams.

“I enjoy watching rugby though I’m not involved in coaching any more, but I like participating in the Dublin parkrun every Saturday and swimming in the sea most weekends, which refreshes me and wakes me up.

“These are other community involvements where I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends, plus I’ve a big family who I spend a lot of time with.”

She’s also motivated by the diversity of work at the Legal Aid Board. “I love the fact that every day is different and while I plan a week or two ahead, I always end up having to do things that are different to what I expected and there’s tremendous variety.”

The opening of the centre at Ballymun, she anticipates, will certainly make a difference. “Every case resolved and each person supported signifies the importance of access to justice and support and that’s at the heart of what we do at the Legal Aid Board.”

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