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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 1991

Vol. 409 No. 2

Adjournment Debate. - Dublin Law Centre Closure.

The civil legal aid scheme assists those who cannot afford a private solicitor and gives them proper access to the courts. As you are aware, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister for Justice recently announced he was expanding the civil legal aid scheme. New centres are to be opened in Castlebar, Dundalk and Letterkenny. Two new centres are to be opened in Dublin — one in Clondalkin and another in the Finglas-Ballymun area. I welcome the opening of these new centres but I am concerned about the Minister's announcement that the centre at Aston Quay in Dublin is to be closed. Aston Quay is in my own constituency and it was the first civil legal aid centre in Dublin to be established in 1980.

At present Aston House has four solicitors. It is intended that the two new Dublin centres will have two solicitors each. In effect what the Minister proposes is to divide Aston House in two. There will, therefore, be no expansion of the civil legal aid scheme in the Dublin area. The Family Lawyers Association commend the opening of the new centres in urban areas and have recommended to the Minister that further centres should be opened in large population areas such as Ballymun and Clondalkin. However, the demand for legal aid services in Dublin is such that the two new centres should be in addition to those presently available. At present, there are four centres in Dublin — Ormond Quay, Gardiner Street, Tallaght and Aston House. The situation as of today's date is as follows: Ormond Quay — new clients are being told to contact the centre again in six weeks time. The centre is not even taking the names and addresses of new clients as the waiting list is so long that the centre cannot predict when it will be in a position to take on new clients; Gardiner Street — names and addresses of new clients are being taken but they are being advised that it will be at least five months before they can expect an appointment; Tallaght — names and addresses of new clients are being taken but it is not possible to indicate when an appointment will be available; and Aston Quay — this centre, which the motion is about, has been closed to new clients for some time now due to the backlog of clients awaiting appointments.

As you can see from what I have said, the demand for services in the Dublin area is such that new centres need to be opened but not at the expense of the closure of other centres. Contrary to the Minister's statement the opening of two new centres is not an expansion of the scheme but merely a rearrangement of the existing services.

There are other difficulties which arise in the closure of a city centre. The Dublin centres take on clients from any part of Ireland where there is not a centre already in existence. Being in the centre of Dublin the offices which I have listed are generally accessible to clients as they are situated near the main bus routes. If a wife is represented by one centre the husband will have to seek legal aid in another centre due to the possible conflict of interest that can arise. It is not possible for a husband and wife to be represented by the same centre. The opening of centres in Clondalkin and Ballymun, will not, therefore, solve the problems for those areas as the other spouse will still have to seek legal aid outside that area.

At present demand exceeds the ability of the scheme to provide services. There are literally hundreds of low income people on the waiting lists, not to mention those who are not even getting on waiting lists. Seven members of the legal aid board have resigned, among them Mr. Niall Fennelly, chairman of the Bar Council. They resigned in the hope that the service would be improved and to highlight the need for an increase in the services, but, unfortunately, the services are not improved. For the Government to suggest closing a centre when none of the Dublin centres are open to new clients is, to say the very least, an insult to those who require legal advice and who do not have sufficient income to pay for it.

It is my considered opinion that the Government in failing to provide an adequate scheme of civil legal aid are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. I ask the Minister to reconsider his decision on the closure of Aston House.

When the 1977 Report of the Pringle Committee on Civil Legal Aid, was being considered prior to the establishment of the scheme of civil legal aid and advice it was decided, in 1980, following a recommendation in that report, that law centres should be established in central locations, which would be readily accessible to persons, wishing to avail themselves of the new service. For that reason, and particularly in so far as Dublin was concerned, the preference was for city centre locations. That is why the two initial centres were situated at Gardiner Street and Aston House in 1980. Precisely the same consideration applied to the opening of the Ormond Quay Law Centre in 1982.

For some time now, the Legal Aid Board, has been considering the rationalisation of the service, provided in Dublin by the closure of the law centre at Aston House, and the redeployment of the staff to two new law centres to be opened in the suburbs of the city. I want to stress that the initiative in this matter came from the Legal Aid Board themselves. Under the scheme, the location and establishment of law centres is a matter for the board, subject only to the consent of the Minister for Justice. I will return to this aspect of the matter in a moment.

The purpose of the proposed move is to make the service provided by the board under the scheme more accessible to persons residing in the very large housing areas that have developed at the periphery of the city and who are put to considerable expense and inconvenience in having to travel to city centre offices.

It is clear that population shifts of this nature, within the wider context of urban planning give cause for a rethink on earlier decisions on the location of law centres in an area as large as Dublin. It was against this background that a law centre was opened in Tallaght in 1987 rather than at a location in the centre of the city.

The question of the opening of new full-time and part-time law centres is dealt with in part 6 of the Scheme of Civil Legal Aid and Advice. Section 6.2 stipulates that in deciding where law centres should be located the board must have regard to certain matters, such as the desirability of providing, so far as possible, ready access to legal services in areas where the need for those services is at it greatest and the need to use available resources in a way likely to result in maximum benefit for persons in need of legal services.

In accordance with the provision of paragraph 2.2.2 of the scheme, the consent of the Minister for Justice is required for the opening of new law full-time centres by the board. Following the recent allocation of increased funding by the Minister for Justice to enable additional law centres to be opened, the board submitted proposals, which included the closure of the Aston House Law Centre and the opening of two new law centres at Clondalkin and in the Ballymun-Finglas area. The Minister for Justice consented to these proposals as well as to the board's proposals to open new law centres at Letterkenny, Dundalk and Castlebar. The establishment of these two new Dublin law centres will facilitate the opening of part-time law centres at other suburban locations and the board have already identified Blanchardstown and Balbriggan as the locations for such centres. Under paragraph 6.2.3 of the scheme, part-time law centres can be opened by the board without reference to the Minister for Justice.

I think that anyone who considers the situation for a moment will agree that the board's proposals in this matter make perfect sense. It must be a daunting prospect for anyone living in the areas which will be served by the new Dublin law centres to have to mount an expedition into the city centre to avail themselves of legals services under the scheme. Furthermore, the change is totally in keeping with one of the central features of the Pringle Committee's report regarding the development of a community based legal aid service.

Finally, there is one further reason for the closure of the Aston House Law Centre, it is, that the board's lease on the premises is almost expired. This affords the opportunity of making the change that the board desire at this time.

I trust that this information puts the matter in context for Deputy Doyle and indeed for the House. I am certain that the House will agree that the Minister for Justice, the Department of Justice and the Government are expanding this scheme very broadly indeed.