Written Answers. - Legal Aid Service.

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Question:

10 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps being taken to reduce the waiting time for an appointment with a solicitor at the legal aid centres; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17122/03]

The Deputy will appreciate that under section 5 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, the principal function of the board is to provide, within the board's resources and subject to the other provisions of the Act, legal aid and advice to persons who satisfy the requirements of the Act. In addition, under section 30 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, the Legal Aid Board has responsibility for deciding how legal services should be provided, including the location of law centres, the appropriate staffing for those centres and the use of private practitioners.

The Deputy will be aware that the grant-in-aid to the Legal Aid Board for this year is €17.075 million. While this figure represents a slight decrease of just over 3% on the grant-in-aid for last year, it still represents a significant increase in funding for the board in recent years, up from €10.656 million in 1997 to €17.075 million in 2003, an increase of almost 62%. During this period also, sanction to employ additional staff was conveyed to the board. Since 1997, sanctioned posts in the board's law centre network increased from 191 to 215, of which 89 are solicitor posts, including eight additional posts. These combined additional resources contributed to a significant improvement in waiting times throughout the board's law centre network during this period.

I can inform the Deputy that during 2001, which is the most recent complete year for which figures are available, the board provided legal services to a total of 14,200 persons. At the end of May 2003, average waiting time for a first appointment with a solicitor across the board's 30 law centres was five months. This ranges from a lowest waiting time of two weeks at one law centre up to 13 months at the law centre with the highest waiting time. However, I can inform the Deputy that 17 of the board's law centres have waiting times of less than four months, with only the one law centre already mentioned having a waiting time in excess of one year. I would point out that these figures do not include priority cases, which account for over one fifth of all cases dealt with by the board and where an immediate legal service is provided without the persons concerned having to go on a waiting list.

As I mentioned, the board operates a priority system to deal with certain categories of cases, for example, domestic violence, child care, child abduction and cases where there are time limits. These cases are dealt with immediately and the applicants concerned do not have to go on a waiting list. Applicants who come within this category of cases receive legal assistance either from one of the board's permanent solicitor staff or, if there is no Legal Aid Board solicitor available to immediately take on the case, the applicant is referred to a private practitioner. This arrangement is made possible by the operation of separate private practitioner's panels for solicitors and barristers which the board has established under section 30 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, with the approval of myself and the Minister for Finance. In addition, managing solicitors at law centres have authority to give priority to any case on the waiting list at their centre. For instance, if an applicant is gravely ill or in cases where an applicant is in danger of losing assets or of losing title to a legal remedy if legal services are delayed, the managing solicitor can accord such cases priority status.
In 2001, such priority cases accounted for approximately 22% of total appointments offered by the board during the year. This is a significant portion of total appointments, over one fifth, and must be borne in mind when considering waiting times generally. The operation of this priority procedure offers protection to people whose needs are pressing and who require an immediate legal service.
I am also aware that the board constantly monitors the operation of its law centre network to ensure that its resources are used to maximum effect in making its services available to the greatest possible number of eligible persons. In this regard, the additional management posts which were made available in recent years are enabling the board to develop a more structured change management approach to the provision of civil legal aid throughout the State. This approach is geared to examine the throughput of cases at law centres and where waiting times, for whatever reason, become excessive the position is examined by the board with a view to taking remedial action.