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We have a chance to reform legal system – but we must act now

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Now that tensions between the coalition partners about new forms of legal partnerships seem to have eased, we are told that the Legal Services Regulation Bill is to proceed to completion.

If it continues to follow the pattern of recent months, then the Department of Justice will produce bulky pages of new text which will be briefly considered in the Joint Oireachtas Committee, but without room for any real debate on policy, and the Bill will then move on to its next stage.

That is a pity, because there is a continuing need to try to work out just who is served by these proposed reforms of legal services. If we are going to radically reform our legal services for the first time in generations, then surely we should ensure that we do it in a way that makes the law more consumer friendly and that advances equal access to the law and the legal system.

The proposed legislation has some features that, if enacted, will help. An independent complaints system is an essential component of a quality legal service and is welcome. So too is more information about how lawyers charge their costs.

But this legislation contains nothing that will actually force down the cost of litigation, nor does it address some of the obstacles that people face when they look to the law for redress.

Steps are being taken to address those delays but we in FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) see some areas where budget cuts and austerity measures frustrate everyone involved and where unnecessary delays are created.

These delays in turn clog up the court system and result in additional cost and expense to the State. Crucially, they also lead to a reduction in the rights people have to access the legal system and justice.

There is a lack of joined-up thinking in the Government's entire approach to reforming the legal services sector that will likely end in a lost opportunity to fix a broken system.

Let's look at an example. On January 29 the Legal Aid Board published its annual report for 2012. This service exists to give legal representation to poor people who need it in court, mostly for family law cases. A strict means test applies. The report acknowledges that despite its best efforts and despite its budget being more or less maintained, people had to wait for extended periods for legal help.

More recent statistics show that in December 2013 about 5,250 people were waiting for a first appointment with their solicitor for more than the upper limit of four months. This was the case in 24 of the 31 Law Centres run by the board. Waiting times could be well over a year.

Undeniably there is pressure on all services for people who cannot afford to pay by themselves. However, here there is a knock-on effect for the whole legal system. If people cannot get legal representation in time, then judges must either hear them as 'lay litigants' representing themselves, or the case must be deferred.

A lay litigant who goes to court – probably upset to be there in the first place, needing a solicitor but unable to afford it and thoroughly confused by the legal system – is not only at risk of being denied access to justice but is also likely to cost the State and any others involved a lot of money. Thus, apart from being the right thing to do, there is a pragmatic argument for giving people the representation they need at the time that they need it.

This isn't addressed in the Legal Services Bill. The partnerships proposed in the Bill may be of interest to big commercial users of legal services who would hope to get all their experts together in the one office, but the average non-commercial consumer or small trader – the plain people of Ireland, as it were – can be certain that bringing expertise together in one office is unlikely to mean that each expert won't charge.

There is also the potential to shrink access to specialist experts whose services may in fact be harder and more expensive to buy. FLAC doesn't say that partnerships are bad, just that we can't see where there has been any discussion or examination about how they benefit the ordinary user of legal services.

When we have the chance to change how the business of law is done – the chance to really increase the access of everyone to law and the legal system at the time that they need it – we should take it. Rather than cabinet squabbles, it would be good for our society to have a thorough, open debate on how this legislation could change our legal system to better serve all of the people.

NOELINE BLACKWELL IS DIRECTOR GENERAL OF FLAC.

Irish Independent