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Waiting lists for civil legal aid

Michelle Mulherin (FG, Mayo) raised the issue of the lengthening waiting lists for civil legal aid, the numbers rising from 1,681 people in January 2009 to 4,500 this September (Dail Eireann, Debates, 15th December 2011, 360-2).  74% of these cases, she said, were family law cases involving divorce, separation and maintenance.  To ask them to wait eleven months for an appointment was tough and cruel.  Many of those affected had visited her clinic and her heart went out to them.  She asked that inroads be made into the waiting lists.  The law centres tried to have an average waiting time of four months but were clearly unable to reach this target.  She contrasted the way in which those using civil legal aid were required to pay for the service, from €1 to €50, while those using the criminal legal aid scheme, which cost €56m last year, did not pay at all.  If people using the criminal legal aid scheme faced a similar charge, then €3.3m could be saved.


Responding for the government, Alan Shatter, the Minister for Justice & Equality, confirmed that the past three or four years had seen a huge increase in the demand for legal services, up from 10,150 in 2007 to 17,175 in 2010.  The Civil Legal Aid Board had prioritized certain types of cases, such as those where there was an allegation of violence, child custody or statutory deadlines and these comprised 15% of cases.  Up to 40% of cases received a speedy service.


The civil legal aid budget was being maintained at the same level in 2012, but with the increase in numbers seeking services, difficulties would continue.  He had appointed a new board and he was confident it would do its best.  It was already using the JobBridge scheme.  It will pilot an initiative to ensure that everyone gets a solicitor’s appointment in three to four weeks, but the person would have to wait for further steps or representation in court.  He had already announced the integration of the family mediation service with the board and he hoped that family disputes which ended up in litigation might be resolved through the service.  As for the criminal legal aid service, fees for legal practitioners had been reduced 10%.  A charge, though, would create both constitutional difficulties and problems with the European Convention on human rights.


Michelle Mulherin still pressed for a charge.  It was wrong that a woman and her children had to wait six to eleven months while someone who broke the law tonight got legal aid in the morning.  It was not excessive to deduct €1 to €50 from their social welfare over time, even if it meant they might have to stay out of the bookies for a week or do without a packet of cigarettes.   ‘I do not think the rest of society should have to pay in every way for the actions of these people’.