Cutting legal aid 'penny wise and pound foolish'
Legal aid cuts make the system more expensive, a leading family and child law expert has warned.
Special rapporteur on child protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon described the situation as "penny wise and pound foolish".
"Cuts to legal aid budgets have led to proceedings which are more drawn out and more difficult to resolve where adequate support is lacking," he told the Oireachtas Justice Committee. The comments came in the third of a series of hearings by the committee on the family law system. It plans to publish a report with recommendations for reforms.
Dr Shannon said that while Ireland had a "Rolls-Royce" commercial court system, its family law system was "impoverished" and did not really have the capacity to meet the needs of "the most vulnerable members of our society".
The Legal Aid Board has struggled to meet demand in recent years and the Government faced criticism for failing to significantly increase its funding in last year's Budget.
Stephanie Lord, a legal and policy officer with legal advice charity Flac, told the committee the limited nature of legal aid in Ireland and restrictions on the type of cases it can be granted for means many people end up representing themselves in the courts.
"This raises all sorts of difficulties for individuals because of how complex the processes are," she said.
Flac chief executive Eilis Barry told the committee there were particular concerns in the area of family law.
"Anecdotally, we have been told by family law practitioners that up to 80pc of people in the district court aren't represented," she said.
"I think that is a scandal. I don't think that is desirable for the parties involved or the children or for the early resolution of matters. I think it causes huge delays as the judges are trying to grapple with the unrepresented litigant appearing before them."
Ms Barry also said a means test hasn't been amended since 2008 and was leading to deserving cases not getting legal aid.