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People facing massive legal bills if income narrowly exceeds civil aid threshold

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Under a means test currently being applied, a person has to have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000. Photo posed. Stock image

Under a means test currently being applied, a person has to have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000. Photo posed. Stock image

Under a means test currently being applied, a person has to have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000. Photo posed. Stock image

People who don’t qualify for civil legal aid because they narrowly exceed the income threshold are ending up with large legal bills they cannot afford to pay, according to a report by a legal advice charity.

Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) chief executive, Eilis Barry said “a huge gap” has emerged between those whose income is low enough to entitle them to legal aid and those who can actually afford legal services.

The situation was indicative of an access to justice crisis, the charity said.

The organisation’s annual report for 2021, published today, said people caught in this gap “are in a particularly difficult position trying to borrow money from family, friends, or lenders or trying to navigate the court system as lay litigants”.

The report details one case where a party in a contested family law matter was unable to get civil legal aid because their income was €500 more than what is allowed under the scheme’s threshold.

They ended up with a legal bill in excess of €20,000 which they are now struggling to pay.

“Cases like this are very common. It is a real issue,” Ms Barry said.

Under a means test currently being applied, a person has to have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000 and disposable assets of less than €100,000 to qualify.

A major review of Ireland’s civil legal aid system, chaired by former chief justice Frank Clarke, finally got under way in recent weeks after years of lobbying by bodies such as Flac for the scheme to be re-examined.

The annual report said another problem is that those who do qualify can face many months waiting for their legal aid to be approved.

Some important areas of law, such as homelessness, housing and discrimination law aren’t generally catered for under the scheme either, Ms Barry said.

The Flac chief executive said the organisation was contacted by almost 2,000 people last year with employment law queries, but the charity had nowhere to refer them to because they would not get legal aid and could not afford a solicitor.

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“There is currently no legal aid for employment and discrimination claims before the Workplace Relations Commission,” she said.

Ms Barry said a measure of the unmet legal need at present was the fact that the organisation received 13,147 calls last year, the highest number since 2015.

“It is important to note that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as Flac cannot answer every call made to our phoneline,” she said.

Almost 30pc of all queries, a record-breaking number of 3,895, related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence and custody and child maintenance issues.

The report said non-eligibility or a delay in receiving legal aid was a complicating factor in most of these cases. It said 55pc of lay litigants had a family law issue.

“Callers often contacted the Flac information and referral line in situations where they had been served with legal proceedings but were facing many months of delay in being approved for legal aid,” the report said.


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