As the Minister will be aware, the growing problem of access to the services of free legal aid centres is causing crises for individuals who are on waiting lists for civil legal services. Figures provided by the Department show the number of people waiting for the services of free law centres increased from 1,681 people in January 2009 to 4,500 in September 2011. One must bear in mind that 74% of those on the waiting list are seeking legal services for the purpose of family law cases, whether emergency cases or cases involving divorce, separation, maintenance and so forth. I am aware that priority is given to urgent cases involving domestic violence and urgent child care needs.
One hears a great deal about the impact of the recession. The people affected by the delays in providing legal services include individuals whose relationships have broken down, those in negative equity and people who are trying to resolve problems related to family, children and property. To ask people in such circumstances to wait for up to 11 months at some law centres is tough and cruel. It creates major difficulties for those who are unable to avail of the advice of a solicitor for lengthy periods during which they believe their world is falling apart and they need some certainty, advice or professional input from a lawyer. Many of those affected have visited my clinic to raise this problem and my heart goes out to them
I ask that inroads be made in the waiting lists. The law centres seek to achieve an average waiting time of four months but are clearly unable to reach this target given that waiting periods have increased to 11 months in some cases. I commend many of the solicitors in private practice who give legal advice or guidance to people who cannot afford to pay for it but require independent, objective advice on their circumstances. For many of the individuals in question, solicitors who give their services free are a godsend.
The second aspect of the matter I raise is the possibility of generating some revenue through the criminal legal aid service. Last year, €56 million was spent on criminal legal aid and I understand the €47 million allocated for this year will be exceeded by approximately €10 million. As of 1 August, 33,225 legal aid certificates had been granted. I am not sure what the current figure is. Those who avail of the services of law centres are asked to pay a contribution towards the cost of the legal service provided. While the charge depends on the person's means, it may range from €1 to upwards of €50. On the other hand, people who receive legal aid certificates in criminal cases are not asked to pay anything. Information on re-offending levels among those who come before the courts, specifically those who receive non-custodial sentences, is not available. As a practitioner who did criminal work in the District Court, I used to see the same people repeatedly come before the court and receiving legal aid certificates at no personal cost. This practice is ridiculous and flies in the face of justice and common sense. If people receiving legal aid certificates, especially those who have reoffended, faced charges similar to those applied to those who receive civil legal aid, savings of approximately €3.3 million would have been made up to 1 August this year.