At-risk homeowners wait eight months for legal aid
PEOPLE at risk of losing their house are being forced to wait up to eight months for an appointment with a solicitor.
The State's civil legal aid system is struggling to deal with demand after applications soared by 70pc since 2007.
New figures provided to the Irish Independent reveal that so far this year the number of applications has soared by 22pc up until the end of November. This follows an 18pc surge in 2009 during which just over 14,000 applications were lodged.
A spokesman for the State's Legal Aid Board said the recession meant more people qualified for the aid and also needed help addressing a variety of issues, including family law, debt and employment problems.
The chair of the board, Anne Colley, has warned that delivering the services was proving challenging due to cutbacks in resources and pressures on staffing.
The latest available figures for the end of November show 3,319 people, excluding the service for asylum seekers, were waiting for an initial appointment with a Legal Aid Board solicitor at one of its law centres throughout the country.
People are facing an eight-month wait at both Cork's South Mall centre and the Tallaght office in Dublin, while there is a seven-month waiting list at Newbridge, Co Kildare, and six months at the Wicklow, Athlone and Nenagh centre in Co Tipperary.
There are 244 people on the waiting list to talk to a solicitor at the Newbridge centre, while in the busy Tallaght premises 216 people are awaiting an appointment.
Last month, the demands on the system were outlined as the High Court heard how a woman facing having her property repossessed had received a letter from the law centre in Newbridge stating it would be 28 weeks -- or around six months -- before she could be seen.
Around 15pc of people applying to the board in cases involving domestic violence or childcare are considered 'priority' cases and are not placed on the waiting list.
It has also begun offering people short half-hour advice sessions with a solicitor where the waiting time is over three-months.
Noeleen Blackwell, executive director of the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC), said this meant many people were waiting up to eight months to get any information at all on their position.
"That means that not only can people not get represen-tation but very often problems exacerbate while people are waiting," she said.
She said leaving people waiting eight months for a meeting may be considered a "denial of legal representation".
Ms Blackwell stressed the staff in the legal aid board were excellent.
A High Court judge has recommended people should not have to wait longer than two to four months to get an appointment with a solicitor through the board.
Funding for the civil legal aid service dropped 2.5pc to €26.3m in 2009.