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Families at risk of losing homes hit by legal aid delay

PEOPLE embroiled in debt and at risk of losing their homes face a wait of up to 10 months to see a solicitor under the State's civil legal aid system.

Pressures on the means-tested system for those unable to afford a private solicitor have continued to grow -- with the total number of applications for advice up 85pc in the past five years.

More than half of the centres are failing to meet their target of seeing an applicant in four months or less, and Dr Moling Ryan, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, has expressed concern over the waiting times.

The board's law centres received more than 18,727 applications for civil legal aid advice from a solicitor last year, which was up 9pc on 2010.

"As a consequence of the downturn, a greater number are eligible for the service but the evidence would suggest, at a time of economic downturn, that there tends to be an increase in family law cases, debt and employment cases," Dr Ryan said.

The waiting times varied at centres throughout the country -- with a 10-month wait in Clondalkin and Tallaght, nine months in Tipperary and eight months in the centres in Finglas and Brunswick Street in Dublin, and in Kildare.

Elsewhere, the wait is seven months at Pope's Quay in Cork, three months in Limerick, six months in Waterford, nine months in Tipperary, and four months in Galway, Donegal and Kerry. The shortest wait, at just one month, is in Louth.

There were 4,443 people waiting for an initial appointment with a solicitor at the end of December.

Dr Ryan said a lengthy wait would in many cases "solidify problems".

From March, the board plans to introduce a 'triage service' to guarantee people an initial 45-minute meeting with a solicitor within two to three weeks of applying. In some instances, they could then be directed towards mediation, while in other cases they may be returned to the waiting list for further legal advice.

Dr Ryan said it was not a "full answer" to the issue but would ensure people received advice at an earlier stage.

Cases involving sensitive matters, such as domestic violence or child abduction, are already fast-tracked.

Private solicitors are also being used to ease the pressures on the service, with 4,854 appearances in court by solicitors last year compared with 1,977 in 2007.

"We are limited in the number of cases we can send to private solicitors. We do use them extensively and we get good value," Dr Ryan said.

The board's budget was cut to €30.3m last year from €32.19m in 2010, with €24.1m earmarked for the civil legal aid system. Dr Ryan said the budget for civil legal aid would remain the same for 2012.

Family law cases have continued to be the main reason people seek advice, while the numbers concerned with debt matters more than tripled to 353 cases in 2010 from 107 in 2008.

Irish Independent