Táim buíoch as ucht an chuiridh ón gCathaoirleach teacht os bhur gcomhar inniu. Is mór an onóir dom a bheith os comhair an choiste. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an coiste sásta liom mar chathaoirleach ar an An Bord Um Chúnamh Dlíthiúil agus go mbeidh me ábalta aon cheist ata acu a fhreagairt. I am humbled and honoured to have been nominated by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality as chairperson of the Legal Aid Board for a five-year term and to be here before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. My appointment as a member of the Legal Aid Board, together with that of the other members, took effect from 8 November 2016. I am grateful for the responsible role given to me and I look forward to the challenges that will arise.
I served a full five-year term as an ordinary member of the previous board. That board's term of office expired on 10 October 2016 and I am the sole member to have been reappointed. I served on a number of the board's committees and I chaired its audit and risk committee. My experience as a member of the previous board has given me a very good understanding of both the organisation and the challenges it faces and I believe it also ensures both corporate memory and good governance practice.
I am a solicitor with over 30 years' experience in private practice. My professional involvement continues with the firm of FitzGerald Solicitors in Cork, of which I have been the managing partner for over ten years. I currently practise law, particularly in the area of commercial and private client. For the benefit of the committee, I set out my involvement in areas of legal practice, community and sport.
Working in a busy legal practice, with 13 solicitors and 19 support staff, means that I am experienced in overseeing a range of areas, including commercial, child care, family law and private client. I practise law with the benefit of up-to-date technology and case management. Part of my work involves taking a multidisciplinary approach and directing efficient resources for timely and successful outcomes.
I come from a modest background and I understand that poverty is not just about a lack of money, it is also about a lack of access to opportunities, education and justice. I continue to have a deep empathy and understanding for the clients of the Legal Aid Board who are persons with modest incomes and I understand the importance of access to justice for all, which is an important part of any functioning democracy.
I was involved with the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, in Cork for over 15 years. I chaired the Cork organisation when I was a student in UCC many years ago. I was a founding member and director of the Farranree Sheltered Housing Association, FSHA, a not-for-profit body providing accommodation to the elderly in the community. The FSHA developed and built 39 new units locally and continues to provide sheltered accommodation.
I understand the importance of voluntary work in the community and, like most Cork people, I am passionate about hurling. I am a member of Inniscarra GAA club and I am actively involved in coaching its under-age teams. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.
As I said, I have been a member of the Legal Aid Board since December 2011. The Legal Aid Board commenced in 1979. Its principal function has been to provide civil legal aid services to persons of modest means. The board was established as a statutory body on foot of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. It provides legal services using a mixed model of delivery – it employs solicitors and support staff in law centres and it refers cases to private solicitors on a fee-per-case basis. There are 30 law centres located throughout the country along with three specialist offices.
The board's head office is located in Cahirciveen, County Kerry, with some functions being provided from an office in Dublin. The move to Cahirciveen was one of the early decentralisations and the permanent office opened there in 2002. The board has a full-time equivalent staff of 425, of whom just over 300 work in law centres - 120 of these occupy solicitor positions - approximately 40 in the family mediation offices, 21 of whom are mediators, and over 80 in head office support functions.
The board's grant for 2017 is just under €39 million. The grant constitutes approximately 93% of the board’s income.
Over 17,000 clients applied for civil legal aid in 2016. The gateway to civil legal aid services is the law centre, where the vast majority of persons make their applications. There is a merits test and there are financial eligibility criteria. Most persons who receive legal services are required to pay a contribution. Most areas of civil law come within the ambit of the Civil Legal Aid Act and the approach that the legislation takes is that a matter comes within the Act unless it is specifically excluded. In practice, the majority of persons seeking civil legal aid services from the board, do so in respect of family problems.
My work with the Legal Aid Board included membership of the appeals committee, which deals with appeals on the refusal of legal aid certificates by the executive, and I have adjudicated on over 500 appeals to date. I also chaired the audit and risk management committee. This entailed supervising the overall risk management strategy for the board's operations. My private practice experience has been instrumental in shaping the risk management strategies of the board in the practice of law over wide ranging areas. I have also advised on the important liaison with the Comptroller and Auditor General's office on the annual audit of the board's activities.
The board's law centres have waiting lists, which is a continuing challenge. In some ways the recession was the perfect storm for the organisation as demand for services increased very significantly at a time of constrained resources. On 1 January 2014, there were over 5,000 applicants waiting for legal services. The figure is now under 2,000, which is a welcome improvement. Urgent cases are prioritised. Nevertheless, the fact that there are persons waiting is not ideal. I wish to work with the board and to support the staff in continuing to reduce the waiting list to a manageable number.
I have mentioned the financial eligibility criteria, which have not been significantly revised in over ten years. I wish to examine the criteria to ensure that those who genuinely cannot afford to pay for legal services are not disqualified for financial reasons, particularly in cases where working people of modest incomes are provided with additional State support, for example, the family income supplement, thus potentially creating a poverty trap.
Change in the legal arena is ongoing and some of it impacts on the board’s business. The board is a key player in the recently launched Abhaile scheme which aims to support, with financial and legal advice, those at risk of having their homes repossessed. There is a statutory provision, yet to be commenced, to transfer responsibility for the Mental Health Commission’s legal aid scheme to the board. There are also significant legal aid provisions in the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act 2015 that have yet to be commenced. I see the board as having an important role in ensuring that these and other similar changes are given effect in a manner that best serves the client.
In November 2011, a legislative amendment transferred responsibility for the State-funded family mediation services to the board. The rationale for this was that there was considerable scope for synergising the delivery of civil legal aid services in family cases with the provision of a family mediation service. The board’s family mediation services are provided out of nine full-time and eight part-time offices. Mediation services are provided without reference to a person’s means and are free of charge. The board opened its first co-located family mediation office and law centre in Jervis Street last year. There are plans to co-locate further offices. The board also has mediators situated full-time in the District Family Court in Dublin. We can do more to divert those experiencing difficult family problems from the adversarial court process to the process of mediation and I wish to work with the board, the staff and other stakeholders to ensure that real options are available to those experiencing relationship breakdown and that the court process is not simply seen as the automatic default.
In November 2010, the Government transferred the responsibility for the administration of criminal legal aid from the Department of Justice and Equality to the board. To date, responsibility for three ad hoc schemes, namely, the Criminal Assets Bureau legal aid scheme, the legal aid – custody issues scheme and the Garda station advice scheme, have been transferred. The transfer of responsibility for the main criminal legal aid scheme requires a statutory amendment. I understand that a criminal legal aid Bill incorporating the amendment is likely to be published shortly. I want the board to work with the Department on the forthcoming criminal legal aid legislation. This legislation will transfer responsibility for the administration of criminal legal aid in addition to putting in place reforms to the system. The expenditure on criminal legal aid in any year is approximately €50 million and a priority, when the board has responsibility, will be to ensure good governance.
A longer term objective I have for the new board is to have a more holistic look at the broader access to justice landscape and to examine if the board is playing its role as effectively as it could or if there should be a refocus in terms of the work it does and does not do. I am aware of significant changes in the legal aid landscape that have either occurred or are being planned in neighbouring jurisdictions. I am not suggesting that we should follow some of the actions that they have taken but to quote Francis Bacon, "Things alter for the worse spontaneously, if they not be altered for the better designedly". I am keen to ensure that there is coherence and logic to the legal aid regime we have and that it continues to contribute meaningfully to access to justice. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh bheith ag éisteacht liom inniú agus ta me sásta iarracht a dheanamh chun aon cheist a fhreagrú.