Legal Aid chair says system needs overhaul to avoid ‘poverty traps’
The chairman of the Legal Aid Board says some people are being caught in “a poverty trap” where they cannot get financial assistance to go to court due to issues with eligibility criteria.
Philip O’Leary said the regulations were “idiosyncratic and in need of updating”.
Unlike criminal legal aid, where a qualifying person’s legal costs are met in full, civil legal aid is usually not free and those in receipt of it must make a contribution to their costs.
Strict eligibility criteria must also be satisfied, including a stipulation the person involved must have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000 and disposable assets of less than €100,000.
“The problem with the financial eligibility criteria is that it has not been changed since 2006 effectively. If you are €5 over the €18,000 limit, then you don’t get legal aid,” said Mr O’Leary.
He also cited as an example a working family on a low income in receipt of the family income supplement.
“That is something that in itself can put you over the limit,” he said.
“So that is a classic poverty trap where the State gives with one hand and takes away with the other.”
Another issue was the allowance made for rent in the eligibility criteria.
He said this currently stood at €8,000 when rents in Dublin could be over €20,000.
“It needs to be dealt with and we have asked,” he said.
Mr O’Leary was speaking at the ‘Access to Justice’ conference at Trinity College, organised by Flac to mark the legal advice charity’s 50th anniversary.
Although Mr O’Leary did not go into any details, Independent.ie is aware changes to the eligibility criteria and contribution rules were sought by the board in a submission to the Department of Justice as far back as 2017.
Mr O’Leary told the conference that since becoming chairman in 2016, the waiting list for those seeking legal assistance had fallen from 5,000 to around 1,700.
He said the board operated a triage system and urgent matters like childcare and domestic violence took priority.
He said 64pc of the board’s work was in the family law area while 12.5pc related to arrears, repossessions and the Abhaile scheme.
Mr O’Leary said the board faced a number of risks going forward as legislation is being introduced which could have implications for its budget.
“I think in this country we are very good at passing legislation, sometimes very good legislation, but not so good at having a budget to deal with the outcome,” he said.
Mr O’Leary cited the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill as an example.
The bill, which has its genesis in a private members bill introduced by junior minister Kevin ‘Boxer’Moran, will, in theory, make it more difficult for courts to grant possession orders for family homes.
Mr O’Leary said the board could face “a tsunami of further people” entitled to legal aid because of the bill, but there had been no discussion about funding being made available for this.