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.