THE number of people seeking advice on how to break free from their debts has increased fourfold since the start of the economic crisis.
The surge is revealed in a report published today by the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) -- prompting renewed calls on the Government to put in place a system to help thousands who are "lost" as they try to navigate Ireland's complex debt and bankruptcy laws.
In 2007, FLAC volunteers provided legal advice to 153 people on debt-related issues. Last year, that number had increased to 787, an increase of more than 400pc in just four years.
FLAC director general Noeline Blackwell said that putting a comprehensive debt settlement system in place "must be an absolute".
"It is the most vulnerable people in our society who need advice and support to navigate a complex legal system and, while our volunteers provide a valuable first-stop information and advice service, this cannot replace the services of the State-funded Legal Aid Board, which urgently needs more resources in order to fulfil its remit."
In total, FLAC -- which also provides advice on legal aid, social welfare and public interest law -- dealt with more than 10,000 people at 85 centres throughout Ireland last year.
Ms Blackwell said that delays in civil legal aid, where those who qualified had to wait up to seven months to first see a solicitor, were adding to the social burden associated with the financial crisis.
In December 2010, there were almost 4,000 people approved for legal aid and more than two-thirds were waiting for four months for a first appointment.
"We hear from those who have strained relationships at home, in the workplace, in neighbourhoods," Ms Blackwell said.
"We hear of their health and financial problems. All these make Ireland a society that functions less well, where more people become alienated and where their voices remain unheard.
"Even in times of great economic difficulty, care must be taken in the manner in which cuts are made," she added.
Under the terms of the four-year EU/IMF deal, the Government must introduce a new law on personal debt and insolvency by next March.
Last month, a succession of cabinet ministers ruled out widespread debt forgiveness for struggling borrowers in the face of a warning by High Court Master Ed Honohan that banks were hounding some of their own customers to suicide.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and several ministers rushed to defend the Coalition's response to the personal debt crisis after the startling intervention by Mr Honohan.