The Legal Aid Board is a statutory, independent body in accordance with the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The matters raised by the Deputy are ones for the board. However, in order to be helpful to him, I have had inquiries made with the board. I had a meeting with its chairman following the announcement of the JobBridge programme to encourage use by the board of the internship scheme in order that many of the qualified solicitors currently unemployed would have an opportunity to gain job and work experience.
The new FÁS JobBridge scheme is an important element of the Government's jobs initiative designed to facilitate the provision of work experience and training opportunities for the unemployed. I very much welcome the active participation of the Legal Aid Board in the scheme. I am advised the board will be offering internships to qualified solicitors in order that they can gain practical experience in the areas of civil law in which the organisation provides services. I have every confidence that solicitors obtaining internships with the board will receive valuable experience and training that will help them on the road towards paid employment, notwithstanding the current difficult labour market conditions for legal practitioners. I also anticipate that the interns will make an important contribution to the work of the board during their time with it and that they will be of assistance in tackling the increasing demand it is experiencing for its services.
The locations in which the board initially offered internships had regard to both the current work demands of the organisation and the capacity of the law centres involved to provide the necessary support and development to interns during their placements. The locations initially advertised under the scheme were Newbridge, Ennis, Cavan, Cork, where there were two placements, and Nenagh, plus six internships in various locations in Dublin.
Since advertising with FÁS the board has received 28 applications from eligible candidates and all these candidates have since been offered interviews. The board has already placed an intern in Tallaght law centre and is in the process of offering further placements in the locations I detailed. To date, six additional applicants have been offered and have accepted internships and will be commencing in the coming weeks. The board also intends to offer some additional placements in the coming days and has recently asked FÁS to extend the scheme to all its law centres. This will ensure the board has the maximum flexibility in offering further internships and is a measure that I very much welcome.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The past three or four years have seen a considerable increase in demand to the board for legal services and this coincides with the downturn in the economy. In 2007, just over 10,164 persons sought legal services from the board in regard to general civil non-asylum matters. This figure increased to 17,175 in 2010 and I am informed that the number of applicants in the first six months of this year was almost the same as the total number of applicants in 2007. Inevitably, this has created huge pressures for the board's law centres and its capacity to deliver legal services within a reasonable period of time. As of 1 September 2011, the waiting time in 17 of the board's 29 law centres was greater than four months, and in six of those centres the waiting time was greater than six months. As of 1 September 2011, there were just under 4,500 persons waiting for a first appointment with a solicitor. This compares with 3,153 on 1 January 2011, 2,335 on 1 January 2010 and 1,681 on 1 January 2009.
The board is committed to ensuring applicants for legal services receive a substantive appointment with a solicitor within a maximum period of four months. This is consistent with the view expressed by the High Court in the O'Donoghue case. This has been difficult to achieve in a number of the board's law centres recently. Certain types of case are deemed by their nature to merit the provision of an immediate or near immediate service. Priority cases include those where there are allegations of violence, child custody matters and where statutory deadlines are fast approaching when clients make their first contact with law centres. These comprise 15% of all applications to law centres. A considerable number of other applications are referred quickly to private practitioners. Thus, up to 40% of all cases receive a very quick service. In addition, because the refugee legal service operates to strict statutory deadlines, every asylum case processed by the board is a priority case by reference to the speed of response from the organisation.
Civil legal aid in Ireland is delivered through the board's 29 law centres and a small number of specialist units. The service is complemented through the extensive use of private practitioners. Such use has had to be constrained, however, as a consequence of the increased demand and the extent of the board's financial resources to meet this. The board's grant-in-aid, which accounts for the majority of its funding, other than in regard to asylum, has fallen from almost €27 million in 2008 to just over €24 million this year.
Like all public service organisations, the board has also been subject to the public service recruitment embargo and the employee control framework. While the board had a full staff sanction of 384, the current staffing is in the region of 350. The board has sought to maintain its front line staffing to the greatest extent possible.
The board has taken a range of measures with a view to addressing the increasing demand for services in a resource constrained environment. These include increasing the number of cases referred to private solicitors for the purpose of providing a service; an advice-only service which facilitates an earlier brief meeting with a solicitor where applicants are likely to have to wait in excess of four months for a substantive appointment; an integration of the delivery of all services with a view to ensuring the most effective deployment of resources; the recent introduction of a pilot integrated mediation initiative in Dublin involving the board co-locating and co-operating with the Family Mediation Service and the Courts Service, the purpose of which is to offer applicants for legal services alternatives to litigation in the courts as a better and, from the State's point of view, more cost-effective means of resolving family law disputes; the creation of specialist units for medical negligence and child care services; and the current development of a new legal case management system that is likely to improve the efficiency of service delivery, the management of risk in the organisation and provide for online applications. The board has also made use of a very limited exemption from the moratorium in regard to a small number of temporary front-line service delivery positions.