Legal Aid Board bracing for Covid-19 delays and increased demand
The Legal Aid Board is bracing for an increase in demand and delays in accessing legal services due to the Covid-19 pandemic, its chairperson Philip O’Leary has said.
Writing in the foreword to its 2019 annual report, Mr O’Leary said “many of those experiencing difficult family situations or finding themselves with financial problems brought on or exacerbated by the crisis will need legal advice and representation in increasing numbers as the restrictions unwind”.
He added: “The Board is keenly focused at the moment on making itself as ‘agile’ as possible in order to meet the needs of those who are going to need its services, in addition of course to those who are receiving its services but who may not be able to engage face to face with a lawyer or a family mediator at the moment.”
The challenge is even more acute because of a reversal of a five- or six-year-long downward trend in the numbers waiting for legal services at the end of the year.
The numbers waiting for legal services at the end of 2019 increased to 2,019 from a figure of 1,754 at the start of the year, “counter to a trend that had seen the numbers waiting reducing year on year over the previous five or six years”, Mr O’Leary said.
He added: “I am able to report that the numbers waiting for a first appointment have reduced very significantly since the end of 2019 though I am cautious in terms of the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions and the extent to which it may be delaying a demand for the Board’s services. The Board is reflecting carefully upon how it can meet any surge in demand that may arise as we emerge from the crisis.”
Speaking at the online launch of the report, Justice Minister Helen McEntee thanked Mr O’Leary, the members of the Board, chief executive John McDaid and staff “for their dedicated work during the year – work which continues during this current difficult period”.
She added: “2019 has been a landmark year for the Legal Aid Board. It celebrated its 40th anniversary last December and has played an essential role in society in those over those four decades. It is a testament to the work of the Board that it has assisted 600,000 people since its establishment.”
Addressing the justice minister’s recent announcement on family court reform, Mr O’Leary told the launch: “The Board is effectively the largest family law practice in Ireland and the minister has our full support in achieving these objectives.”
Commenting on the Legal Aid Board’s report, family lawyer Keith Walsh told Irish Legal News: “There are a number of takeaways from the launch yesterday.
“One, the likely surge in demand for legal aid post-Covid-19 and the need for two resources. Two, the immediate need to review the eligibility criteria of those seeking legal aid as it has not changed since 2006. Three, the dynamic and effective leadership by John McDaid, Philip O’Leary, the board and staff of the Legal Aid Board.
“Initiatives such as the settlement hub which provides a safe place for settlement meetings for legal aid board clients and staff and the continued promotion of the legal and mediation helpline have worked very well. Welcome news also from minister McEntee, who committed to review the civil legal aid system next year and the financial eligibility criteria in the short term.”