We are all for justice... but unfortunately justice doesn't really apply to everyone
As a society and a democracy, we take it for granted that our laws and structures will give us access to justice when we need it. We know that the systems aren't perfect and indeed, as is highlighted on a depressingly regular basis, some groups in our society are ignored, resulting in terrible pain and suffering and often blighted lives.
There are occasions when that failure is recognised and then an inquiry, a tribunal, a report and some remedy may be offered.
But what of those who are never able to combine into a group? What of those who don't even know that their rights have been denied to them? What happens to them?
The right of access to justice is peculiar because there is usually no evidence trail when it fails. It's different from denial of health services, where the increased illness is visible. The failure of access to education is evident in lack of skills for work or life. Those who cannot access justice just don't get heard and the world goes on regardless.
That doesn't mean that denying access to justice has no consequences. Some one who can't use society's systems is likely to become more marginalised from that society. Others who lack knowledge of the system may end up in jail, estranged from their family or neighbours, or homeless. A person who has misused their power and got away with it once may do it again to others. These consequences can't be visibly traced back to lack of access to justice. But they exist and they cost our society dearly.
As FLAC's annual report for 2013 shows, many of those we meet are worried sick about basic issues. They do not see the law as protecting them, despite its central role in their lives.
We hear the same from other organisations with which we work who seek a fairer world. Last year, thanks to more than 500 volunteer lawyers and a fruitful partnership with Citizens Information Centres, we could give help to the 27,546 people who contacted FLAC centres and our phone line.
We could also throw light on the law as it affects the clients of other social justice organisations through yet more legal volunteers and law firms. As a result, we know that some people were able to make more informed decisions and to take better control of their lives.
That is useful, worthwhile work, which is very satisfying. Far less satisfying is when we have to tell people that no proper system exists to help them. For many years, FLAC has advocated for better systems to allow those in debt to deal with their money problems. While we were happy to see new insolvency systems in 2012, it is frustrating to find – as we had predicted – that yet again, these systems serve better those with money than they do the poor.
Lender vetoes and a privatised system of insolvency mean that many poor people still can't use the insolvency mechanisms. There is no funded legal advice for them in their negotiation with banks. Even more frustrating is that although everyone knows that it is necessary, debt collectors remain entirely unregulated and unlicensed in Ireland to this day.
Similarly the right of access to justice is weak, slow and hard to negotiate for those who need to use our state civil legal aid system, which cannot cope with the demand on it despite its expert personnel, or for those who find themselves at the mercy of social welfare systems designed to catch fraudsters but which can impose terrible hardship on honest people.
As a society, we should aim for prevention rather than cure. It would be cheaper and more effective to give people access to the law and systems that they need at the time that they need them than to continue to force people to scramble for legal assistance in crisis situations and often find it is too dear, too slow or too late. A more timely, effective system would improve the welfare of individuals in our society. It would also relieve stress on our courts, on our police and on our legal aid systems.
The launch of FLAC's annual report is our call to re-examine access to justice. If we look at the individual and their needs, if we genuinely seek to make justice accessible to law, we could deliver real value for money and real fairness in our society.
Noeline Blackwell is Director General of FLAC. FLAC launches its 2013 annual report today as well as a series of legal information leaflets dealing with aspects of family law, wills and estates and landlord and tenant law