Friday 18 October 2019

Legal aid rules 'denying people access to justice', charity warns

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Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

ACCESS to the civil courts in Ireland is increasing becoming limited to the wealthy and a small number of people who can get legal aid, a legal advice charity has warned.

Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) chief executive Eilis Barry said limitations on the availability of legal aid mean the door of justice is being shut on many people.

Her comments came as Flac today holds a conference on access to justice at Trinity College to mark the organisation’s 50th anniversary.

“Increasingly, access to the Irish courts is limited to wealthy individuals and corporates, as well as a small number of people who receive legal aid or where lawyers are prepared to act on a no win no fee basis,” said Ms Barry.

“This compromises the kinds of cases that our courts hear and adjudicate on.

“Injustices are left ignored and our laws and human rights infrastructure are left unenforced. This is not good for democracy.”

Flac is seeking a range of reforms to the legal system to ensure equal access to legal services and the courts.

The charity is calling for an effective legal aid system, with less restrictive financial eligibility criteria and greater coverage of the scheme to allow for access in cases involving employment, discrimination, housing and homelessness.

It is calling for a “reorientation of the norms” in court to recognise that lay litigants have different requirements to solicitors and barristers, including the additional time they take and their lack of familiarity and understanding of the courts process.

Flac says forms and procedures should be simple and accessible in plain English.

Other initiatives it is calling for include the potential development of an online court system to deal with small and moderate civil cases and disputes, the provisions of targeted legal services for the most disadvantaged groups, and increased promotion of a culture of pro bono legal services within corporate legal practices.

Ms Barry said that over the past five decades Flac had been involved in a number of ground-breaking legal actions that had altered the human rights landscape in Ireland.

These included the Airey case, which established a right to civil legal aid, and the Lydia Foy case, where she received a birth certificate recognising her gender as female, paving the way for the reform of gender recognition laws in Ireland.

“However the challenges Flac is being contacted about on a daily basis involve individuals trying to navigate the court system without legal representation, and those who struggle with inaccessible court forms, procedures and language,” said Ms Barry.

“Due to the limitations on the availability of legal aid, the door to justice is shut in front of these people.

“Ireland’s courts and legal system is designed by lawyers for lawyers. The procedures and processes of the courts restrict access because they are off-putting, complex and costly.

“Access to the courts is built around the assumption that litigants will have legal representation, and increasingly legal representation is beyond what most individuals can afford.

“The more marginalised and disadvantaged individuals are, the more inaccessible justice becomes.”

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