The Minister will have 15 minutes to reply. The proposer of the motion has 12 minutes and each Senator has eight minutes to contribute. The proposer of the motion, or another Senator nominated by him, has five minutes to reply at the end of the debate.
Civil Legal Aid Service: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann welcomes the Government's commitment to ensure equal access to justice for all regardless of means and to guarantee the availability of legal services in a speedy and effective manner to those relying on the Civil Legal Aid Service; and in particular:
—welcomes the initiative of the Minister for Equality and Law Reform in undertaking a major expansion of the Civil Legal Aid Service since coming into office;
—applauds the announcement by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform that, during 1994, ten new full-time Law Centres and four part-time Law Centres will be established, and that by the end of this year, no county in Ireland will be without a Law Centre;
—welcomes the major recruitment of additional staff for the Legal Aid Board during 1993 and projected for 1994;
—takes note of the significant progress made towards the reduction of waiting lists and anticipates further reductions in 1994; and
—welcomes the commitment to place the Legal Aid Scheme on a Statutory basis.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to participate in this important discussion in relation to an area of governmental endeavour which is so vital to the most vulnerable members of society.
The initiatives taken by the Minister, Deputy Taylor, will have great implications for people who need, in many cases as a matter of extreme urgency, access to our courts at all levels. The Legal Aid Board was established in 1979 and grew in a rather haphazard manner. Sometimes it had funding while at other times it did not, and the funding was received from diverse sources. There was an obvious need that people, regardless of their circumstances, were entitled to access to the law if the constitutional provisions in relation to the treatment of people in this country as equal citizens were to have any meaning. Where people lacked the necessary funds, the State had an obligation to provide such a service. This gave rise to the establishment of the Legal Aid Board.
In 1980 the first legal aid centres were established at six locations — Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo. It was the intention of the then Government to continue to expand the number of law centres. Unfortunately, due to lack of resources, nothing of any note happened until 1986-87 when the funds of suitors legislation was introduced. The Minister will be familiar with it, but it was new to me. The fund was made up of unclaimed moneys, which I understand languished in banks and various other places, and was used to establish further centres in other areas — Tralee, Athlone, Tallaght and a second centre in Cork. I recall that the fund paid for the refurbishment of the Law Library and various other matters which were necessary at the time.
The position has dramatically improved through the initiative of the Minister, Deputy Taylor, and his Department. There will be an additional ten full-time centres and a number of part-time centres. It is worth recording that in 1992 the total staff in the legal aid centres was 99. The Department for which the Minister is responsible, added an extra 41 people in 1993 and it is envisaged that there will be a further 64 employees by the end of 1994, giving a total employee number of 201. In addition, the funding has risen from a grant-in-aid in 1992 of £2.685 million to £4.972 million in 1994 — the amount has doubled. This is a tremendous achievement in a short space of time.
I was surprised by the Fine Gael amendment for a number of reasons. First, it did not refer to the Minister for Equality and Law Reform but to the Minister for Justice. Was it the fault of researchers on the other side that they did not realise the implementation of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission consultation paper on family courts is a matter in Government for the Minister for Justice?
It is such an important matter. It had to be tabled for debate at the first opportunity. It is vital.
Has this Minister no responsibility?
The appointment of extra members of the Judiciary——
I know it is a Fianna Fáil Minister——
I am surprised that Senator Neville is interrupting. He usually has the precision of a Swiss watch——
Collective Cabinet responsibility.
——but since he has made a mess of this, he wishes to intervene. I am happy to mix it with him at any time, anywhere. It makes no difference.
The second item in the amendment calls on the Minister, Deputy Taylor, to appoint extra members of the Judiciary with specialised training. It is not the Minister's area of responsibility, rather the area of the Minister for Justice. The amendment further calls for the provision of extra staff to deal with the delays in child assessments. That is not a matter for Minister, Deputy Taylor, but for the Minister for Justice. The final part of the amendment calls for the provision of adequate funds and staff for the existing and new legal aid centres. Given that the staffing level has risen from 99 to over 200 and that the budget has increased from £2.6 million to £4.9 million - resources have doubled — any Opposition would have congratulated the Minister in charge of that particular operation. Instead, we got an amendment that was directed at the wrong Minister, which requested funds that have already been provided and staff which have already been employed or will be employed by the end of 1994. Wherever the Opposition was, it was certainly not, as we say in Cork, at home on this issue.
When I researched some information on the service it was surprising to note that 97 per cent of the work carried out in the legal aid centres deals with family law. That is incredible in many ways, because so much else is happening to people in terms of their legal rights and their desire for access to the law. It seems they are unaware that they can have recourse to legal aid centres for matters other than family law cases, such as injury and property cases. There are a number of issues which are excluded for people who qualify in other respects to partake of legal aid in such matters as defamation, civil bills under £150 — which, I understand, are now dealt with in the small claims court — debt collection, land disputes and some matters involving conveyancing. However, as I understand it all other areas are available to people who qualify for the provision of legal aid. It is amazing that only 3 per cent of them apply for such aid.
In common with many provisions in other areas, such as the supplementary welfare allowance, budgets have not been used over the years, not because the need was not there but because people did not know about them. The Minister will have to address this and ensure that people are aware of the content and availability of such services. The provision of services which are not properly publicised is in many ways a denial of the service. Therefore the question of having information in the hands of those who need it most must be addressed, whether it be by the use of television and newspapers or the availability of literature at various centres such as libraries, Garda stations and so on. I ask the Minister to comment on this issue when he responds to the motion.
The announcement by the Minister of 14 new law centres in 1994 represents the most significant expansion of the services by the Legal Aid Board since its establishment in 1979. I have outlined the progression in the services since 1979 and I pay tribute to organisations such as FLAC and the Coolock Law Centre who provided a service when there was no State assistance in this area. It is fitting also that the House pays tribute to these organisations.
The legal profession, to which the Minister, Senator Enright, Senator Cosgrave and others belong, has been pilloried in many instances. However, what has not been recognised is the work undertaken and the service provided free of charge by those involved in FLAC and other instances throughout the country where solicitors and legal practices have provided a contribution to the social fabric of the country. They have gone to court on behalf of those who were in no position to pay or where there was no chance of payment.
This Government undertook to examine the question of civil legal aid and to ascertain in what way accessibility could be increased to people of limited means. There can be no doubt that additional funding will be provided to the Free Legal Aid Board this year. In addition, the extra funding obtained for the board by the Minister last year is evidence of the Government's determination to ensure that a specific undertaking in the Programme for a Partnership Government is brought to fruition. It is my intention to introduce a motion to this House which will list the number of undertakings given in the Programme for a Partnership Government and to establish the fact that these undertakings have been brought to a conclusion. This undertaking was a promise made and a promise kept. Much as it may upset the Opposition, it must acknowledge that it got its amendment wrong and its information wrong and that in future if the Opposition wishes to attack this Government, it should use live ammunition.
Deputy Haughey is nearly in the Chamber.
Senator Magner's contribution to the motion was comprehensive, especially his demolition of the amendment to the motion put forward by the Opposition. I have pleasure in seconding this motion. Senator Magner referred to it as a worthwhile indication of where the Partnership Government has delivered on a promise.
Is the Government back on the tracks again?
The House must welcome what has been achieved in this area. If there is any generosity of spirit in the House, Members must welcome the initiative by the Minister in expanding the civil legal aid service by an amount which is far greater than anything before in the history of the service. In addition, the House must applaud the announcement by the Minister that he is extending by ten the number of full-time centres and by four the number of part time centres this year. The House must also welcome the fact that between the beginning of 1993 and the end of 1994 the number of staff will increase by 120 per cent. Finally, the House must also welcome the fact that the fruits of these efforts by the Minister are visible to us in improvements in the centres at present, especially the improvement in the waiting times.
Furthermore, if there is any spirit of generosity, or even of objectivity, in this House, Members must recognise that, as Senator Magner has pointed out, the Opposition amendment to the motion is ill considered because the first three parts of the amendment dealing with the appointment of extra members to the Judiciary, to implement the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission on family courts and to provide extra staff to deal with the delays in child assessments are——
Is the Senator against these provisions?
I am not against them, but everything in its own place. They are not——
It would be strange if the Senator was against them.
No amount of bluster will provide a fig leaf to cover the Senator's rightful embarrassment at the fact that he has misjudged this motion.
If the Senator wishes to undertake a course on bluster he should consult with Deputy Haughey.
Regarding the provision of adequate funds and staff, there are few areas of public administration at present that is growing as rapidly as the civil legal aid service and this is a fact which is indisputable. In spite of the general constraints, and correct constraints, on public expenditure and on staff numbers in the public service, the civil legal aid service has been the recipient of substantial additional funding and staff resources in the past 12 months and in the current financial period.
Both parties in Government can be rightly proud that the Government is achieving more and has achieved more in this 20 month period than has been achieved in the previous lifetime of the service. Senator Magner referred to the fact that in the two year period from January 1993 the staff level will increase from 99——
Fair play to the Labour Party.
The Senator may dispute the facts if he can. The staff level will increase from 99 to 204, which by any standard is a rapid rate of growth, given the derisory rate of growth that was achieved in the service over the previous period. The next 12 months will witness a dramatic increase in the number of full-time centres. In addition, there will be an increase in the civil legal aid budget by almost one third, which must be welcomed by any Member of the House who has any sense of objectivity.
There will be a substantial improvement in the number of full-time civil legal aid centres this year. At the beginning of the year there were 35 such centres operating throughout the country; by the end of this year there will be 43 centres. This masks the real level of improvement that has been achieved because the most important development this year is that the number of full-time centres will grow by ten, from 16 at the beginning of the year to 26 by the end of the year. Six existing part-time centres will be upgraded in that process and an additional four part time centres will be opened. If I may be parochial, I welcome the fact that Wicklow is to get a full-time centre.
It is worth reminding the House of what is happening on the ground and I ask any Member of the Opposition to declare an objection. May I ask, for example, if they object to the fact that there is a new centre opening in Dublin city, that Blanchardstown centre, which has operated for years as a part time centre——
Dublin city needs two new centres.
I challenge the Senator to say how many centres are operating in Dublin?
Dublin city needs two new centres and that is the reality.
It would appear to me that the Senator does not know what he is talking about. The Blanchardstown centre——
Has the Senator not heard of the waiting lists?
I will deal with the waiting lists we had when the Senator was on the Government side of the House. Blanchardstown centre, which has been part-time for years, has been upgraded.
We could not get the Labour Party to agree to our proposals.
The Ennis centre and the Kilkenny centre are being upgraded. Monaghan, Wexford and Nenagh are to get full-time centres, where for a decade they have had part-time centres. In addition, Longford, Portlaoise and Wicklow town will have a full-time centre for the first time. I welcome these improvements, as should all Members of this House. Furthermore, there are to be additional part-time centres in Cavan, Navan, Carrick-on-Shannon and Tullamore. Again, Members with generosity of spirit or objectivity would welcome that and commend the Minister for what he has done.
Senator Magner referred to the budgets because nothing can be done without money. It is worth reminding the House that in 1989 the civil legal aid budget totalled £1.5 million; by 1991 it had increased to £2.35 million; in 1992 it increased marginally to £2.68 million; in 1993 it increased to £3.25 million and by the end of this year it will touch the £5 million mark. From the end of 1992 it has increased from over £3 million to under £5 million. Members on the opposite side of the House must welcome that.
It is the same as those in Dublin Castle are getting.
I am glad Senator Neville welcomes that.
It is not enough.
I am glad Senator Neville said it is not enough because I listened to the Fine Gael Finance spokesman, Deputy Yates, on national radio this afternoon castigate this Government for being a high spend Government. Each time I come into this Chamber, Fine Gael Senators argue that the Government is not spending enough, but every time their Finance spokesman opens his mouth he argues that we are spending too much — a tax and spend Government. Fine Gael Senators should consult with Deputy Yates and get their act together on this issue.
Not on this issue.
Fine Gael Members have not spoken to each other for many years and I do not want to intrude on personal tragedies in that regard. Senators on this side of the House are speaking to each other.
Justice delayed is justice denied. A Senator pointed out we should look at waiting times. In Castlebar, North Mall in Cork, Ormond Quay in Dublin, Clondalkin, Dundalk, Galway, Letterkenny, Limerick, Sligo and Tralee waiting lists have been reduced from two months to one month, a significant reduction. In two centres, South Mall in Cork and Finglas, lists have been reduced from five to three months. Athlone is the only centre where people must wait for up to ten months.
This Government has provided the resources and Senators on the opposite side should have the generosity of spirit to recognise what has been done. The Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, has fought for these resources in difficult times and I compliment him in that regard. Additional staff are being recruited at a time when staff is being cut everywhere else. However, each time a microphone is pointed in the direction of the Fine Gael Finance spokesperson, Deputy Yates, he repeats the standard line about this being a high spend Government. I am pleased to support this type of public expenditure because this is a long awaited and overdue improvement. Fine Gael Senators should recognise this and withdraw their nonsensical amendment to the motion. I would support the first three parts of that amendment at a different time and with a different Minister. I know the Minister in question would support it. What has been achieved in this area in the past two years is worthwhile and this House should commend it.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"calls on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission Consultation Paper on Family Courts and in particular:
(i) to appoint extra members of the judiciary with specialised training,
(ii) to provide extra staff to deal with delays in child assessments, and
(iii) to provide adequate funds and staff for the existing and new Legal Aid Centres.
I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge his commitment to this area. While we support and welcome any achievements in this important area, at times we get fed up with self-congratulatory mutual admiration society motions from the Labour Party.
If we achieve it, we flaunt it.
Given the party's difficulties in recent months on many issues, including the property tax——
Deputy Dukes introduced the property tax.
We did not try to tax council houses. The amendment to the motion attempts to address the situation. The Minister used words like "major expansion", "applauds", "projected for 1994" and "anticipate". Although there will be 12 or 14 additional legal aid centres, how many extra staff will be appointed?
Sixty four people will be appointed.
There will be a 20 per cent increase in staff.
At present, some of the staff in legal aid centres are overworked while others are not qualified and there are waiting lists. This situation must be addressed. Many poor people depend on this service and they are not being looked after.
When the Senator's party was in Government it did nothing about this.
If the legal aid system is to work, there is no point having people on waiting lists or in providing extra legal aid centres if nothing happens. I am sure the Minister is aware of the delays. When there is good news the Minister and others clamour for recognition but if there is bad news they pass the buck; some Members pass the buck to the other side of their party.
Pass the buck back to Fine Gael.
Senator Magner's party is in Government now and it told many untruths about us in the last election. The electorate will get the opportunity on 9 June to make their first interim report on this Government. In the near future they will be able to give their assessment on the final examination. The people will indicate their dissatisfaction with members of the Labour and Fianna Fáil Parties.
I ask the Minister to look at delays in regard to children's welfare and disputes. While extra people are being employed in these legal aid centres, obviously some will be busier than others. Some people in these centres are overworked and there are long waiting lists. The Minister, a colleague from the legal profession, is aware that not all cases dealt with by civil legal aid centres are run of the mill. Some may be dealt with in one day while others may be ongoing or may only arise from time to time.
We have heard a lot about the referendum which will be held later this year. The situation must be improved in order to get the basics right. Judges deal with cases of non-payment of television licences and also with couples facing serious problems. I am sure the Minister will take that point on board.
Senator Cosgrave should speak to the Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn.
Is Senator Magner's party in Government or not?
Is Senator Cosgrave addressing this motion or not?
I am addressing this motion.
The motion does not mention the matters Senator Cosgrave discussed.
It is all part of a package. The motion welcomes the initiative, applauds the announcement by the Minister, welcomes the major recruitment——
They are all real; real jobs are being created in real centres.
One must look at the whole package. One cannot just look at what has been and what will be done.
The motion is specific.
The motion is narrow, loud on applause and anticipation——
Its contains facts.
If Senator Magner was working on the ground he would know the difficulties which exist. There are difficulties in relation to whether the staff are qualified——
The Senator must conclude.
I think he should surrender.
Senator Roche was given injury time. After this morning's meeting it is nice to see him backing up his Labour colleagues. The Minister should take on board what we have said. I applaud him for the progress which has been made but more needs to be done. The system must work well from the time someone walks into one of these centres until after the hearing of the court case and where assessment and welfare programmes are needed. There is a great deal of red tape in many centres. Many of the top staff in these centres spend a great deal of time dealing with pink forms, etc., when they should be helping people.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I am aware of his commitment in this area but it would not be wrong if he accepted the motion and our amendment.
The Senator was reluctant to move the amendment.
I second the amendment. Progress has been made on this issue but there is still a long way to go. To our shame, Mrs. Airey had to go to the European Court of Human Rights to be granted the right to free legal aid to obtain a judicial separation. We began from a minus situation. The Pringle committee reported in 1977 and the Legal Aid Board was established in 1980. This year the Minister provided £5 million for the board; in 1993 £3.2 million was provided. This considerable improvement is welcome. We should not be in conflict on this issue. There should be agreement, mutual understanding and co-operation because of its importance. Although I welcome the amount the Minister has provided, we should not go overboard because more than £7 million has been allocated to greyhounds and horses.
This was welcomed by Senator Cosgrave this morning.
While I appreciate the Tánaiste is interested in greyhounds, we should put this in perspective. We are speaking about one of the most sensitive and traumatic times for families in dispute. It is a time when remedies must be provided at a particularly tragic time for families — husbands and wives, sons and daughters. Family cases are heard in the District Court in the morning, before other cases are heard or in the evening after normal business has been transacted. I hope the Minister, in co-operation with the Minister for Justice, will provide for setting aside specific days for family cases. I have seen cases where women were separating from their husbands, and their sons and daughters were torn between the two and did not know which side to be with on the day. This is a sad time for everybody. Cases involving young couples whose marriages have broken down are heard on the same day as cases involving people charged with armed robbery and other serious crime. Specific days should be set aside for family cases.
I would go further with regard to Circuit Court cases. In County Offaly we have four or five court sittings each year. One day is set aside for Circuit Court cases. Any of these cases could last a full day. Normally two are heard in the morning and two in the afternoon. Up to 30 cases can be listed for the same day. In Dundalk 60 judicial separation cases were listed for hearing on the same day. Sixty families were in Dundalk waiting for their cases to be heard. Only two, three or five cases could have been heard. We are not dealing with matters such as speed limits and fines, which can be rubber stamped, but with the greatest tragedy which can confront a family. It is essential that sufficient money is set aside for this important area.
Senator Magner paid tribute to many young solicitors' apprentices, young barristers, and the free legal aid centres for their excellent work. The Minister would be the first to admit that the existing scheme would not exist if many young people were not prepared to give their time on a voluntary basis. Many solicitors are subjected to a great deal of flak, some of it justified. However, many solicitors take on cases for which they are not paid. They probably have social consciences and help people who have little finance. This is a good practice and I hope it continues.
This is a pilot scheme. The Minister initially offered £65 for each family law case, subject to withholding tax and no travel or subsistence was to be paid. This amount was increased to £75.
Plus VAT and outlays.
Many of these cases involve a considerable degree of conflict. To remove this, time is required to work out the tedious parts to see where there is agreement as well as disagreement. By doing this a great deal of the bitterness can be eliminated.
This is not a job solely for the Minister for Equality and Law Reform. There must be co-operation between him and the Minister for Justice and their Departments because there is a considerable overlap.
I do not think that this should be a contentious issue or that we should have a division on it. However, as our amendment states, there is a need to appoint extra members of the Judiciary with specialised training and additional staff to deal with the huge backlog of cases. I cited Dundalk as an example where 65 cases were heard in one day. There would normally be 30 to 40 cases heard in each circuit court area. We need extra staff to deal with the delays in child assessments and to provide adequate funds and staff for the existing and new legal aid centres.
I welcome the progress which the Minster has made. I believe that the substance of our amendment would be of help to him. I hope we will not have a division on Private Members' Time tonight.
Senator Cosgrave, being the sound and experienced solicitor he is, has adopted the well tried and long accepted tenet of the legal profession that when one has a bad case one attacks the witnesses for the prosecution. He set about that tactic here this evening. He had a difficult brief and we all have to recognise that.
The purpose of the scheme of civil legal aid and advice is to enable persons of limited means to avail of legal services. The scheme was established in 1979 following the publication in 1978 of the report of the Pringle Committee on Legal Aid. At the heart of the Pringle committee report was a recommendation that legal aid be provided by solicitors employed in law centres. The provisions of the scheme reflect generally the recommendations made by the committee. The legal services under the scheme are provided by solicitors in the full-time employment of the Legal Aid Board operating from a network of law centres located strategically throughout the State. Experience in neighbouring jurisdictions which use other means of delivering a civil legal aid service would suggest that the right decision was made when the Government of the day opted to provide State run law centres in preference to other possible methods of supplying legal services.
Since the establishment of the scheme the desirability of making its services easily accessible to applicants in all parts of the State has been recognised but achievement of that aim has been outstanding for some time. An unfortunate feature of the scheme for some years has been lengthy waiting lists as well as the need for many clients, particularly outside Dublin, to travel undue distances to get to law centres. These features have created frustration and hardship for persons wishing to avail of the services of the Legal Aid Board. The board's need for expansion of services by way of additional law centres has been a central problem.
The legal aid scheme began with six full-time centres which were located in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Sligo. Between 1986 and 1987 these were followed by new or additional law centres at Tralee, Cork, Athlone and Dublin. Those centres were funded initially by money obtained under Funds of Suitors legislation. The further establishment of three new centres in 1991 at Castlebar, Letterkenny and Dundalk increased the number of full-time centres to 15 and of part-time centres to 19. Subsequently, the services in Dublin were reorganised by the replacement of the city centre law centre at Aston Place with two additional suburban law centres at Finglas and Clondalkin.
From the moment it was established the Legal Aid Board received the wholehearted co-operation of the Bar Council. At all times Bar Council members have been active board members and each of the board's chairpersons was also a member of the Bar Council. They persevered with the board through difficult times. In addition to the duties normally required of him in the task of directing the affairs of the board the current chairperson, with the assistance of his fellow members, is engaged in the demanding task of supervising the implementation of the development plan. I am most grateful to him and to his colleagues in the Bar Council for their efforts over the years on behalf of the Legal Aid Board.
Over the years the demand for services under the scheme continued to be far in excess of its capacity in terms of meeting the demands placed upon it. This had given rise, as I have said, to long waiting lists at the various law centres but it also gave rise, on occasions, to some law centres being closed to all applicants except those requiring "emergency attention" to enable them to deal with the accumulation of cases.
Since 1990, a good deal of the reason for the build up in cases with law centres has been the coming into operation of the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989. That legislation continues to have a major impact on the work of the Legal Aid Board. Applications for judicial separation under the 1989 Act, which comprise a substantial part of legal aid work, are more complex and time consuming to process than applications under the old remedy of "divorce a mensa et thoro” which the 1989 Act abolished and replaced with the new procedures. The number of people seeking legal aid for judicial separation has increased from 133 in 1988-89 under the old “divorce a mensa et thoro” procedure to 278 in 1990, 430 in 1991 and 524 in 1992.
The Government in its Programme for a Partnership Government 1993 to 1997 undertook to provide additional funding to facilitate an expansion of the scheme of civil legal aid advice. It also undertook to place the scheme on a statutory footing.
On taking office as Minister for Equality and Law Reform I immediately gave priority in my Department to the need to reduce waiting lists. My intention was to significantly reduce the length of time it takes an applicant for civil legal aid to get an appointment with a solicitor and, within the constraints imposed by prevailing budgetary situations, to develop the scheme to the greatest possible extent. At that time the waiting period in three law centres was between one and two months, in six centres it was between three and seven months, in four centres it was between eight and ten months, while in the remaining three centres it was over ten months.
In early 1993 I succeeded in getting from the Government a special increase of £100,000 for 1993 for the Legal Aid Board. These additional funds facilitated the introduction of the private solicitor project. Invitations were issued to private solicitors to have their names inserted in panels of solicitors willing to participate in a pilot project in order to see how this initiative might work. I am glad to say there was a good take-up by private solicitors on the establishment of the project. The project is confined to the area of District Court reliefs in barring, custody and maintenance but has been especially helpful in reducing waiting lists generally because it has allowed law centre staff to concentrate on the backlog of separation cases. That project is continuing for the present and will shortly be reviewed having regard in particular to the impact of the resources which I have subsequently secured for the Legal Aid Board.
There have been some differences between the Law Society and my Department on matters in relation to that project but, in general, I think that it is fair to say that the Department and the society have co-operated to the fullest extent possible on that and all other important issues so far as my Department is concerned. I greatly appreciate that co-operation which, at the end of the day, works for the betterment of all interests.
In the second part of 1993 I was successful in securing a Supplementary Estimate for my Department which included provision sufficient to fund the first phase of a development programme for the Legal Aid Board, which was devised by the board in consultation with my Department. This phase of the development plan concentrated on upgrading the capacity of the existing law centres by the introduction of an additional 41 staff, including 12 solicitor staff. By the end of 1993 the waiting lists were significantly reduced. Eight centres were down to between one and two months, which was an increase of five over the position when I took over responsibility for legal aid, seven centres were down to between three and seven months and the number of centres with a waiting time in excess of ten months was reduced from three to one.
Early this year the Government again responded sympathetically to my request for sufficient funds to proceed with the second phase of the Legal Aid Board's plan of development. I succeeded in obtaining almost £5 million as grant-in-aid for the board, an increase of almost £2 million over the 1993 figure. An increase of this magnitude has never been matched by any Government since the legal aid scheme was initiated. The additional money allows for expansion of the board's facilities to unprecedented levels. It will ensure that all counties will have either a full-time or part-time law centre. At present, there are 16 full-time law centres; by the end of 1994 we will have 26 in operation. The new law centres will be located as follows: two new centres are being provided in Dublin, one in the city and one in Blanchardstown. Outside Dublin, new full-time centres will be located in each of the following towns: Ennis, Kilkenny, Longford, Monaghan, Nenagh, Portlaoise, Wexford and Wicklow. The existing law centre in Galway will be provided with an additional solicitor. A further four new part-time law centres will also be established at Carrick-on-Shannon, Cavan town, Navan and Tullamore. Accordingly, following this expansion there will be a total of 26 full-time and 17 part-time law centres located strategically throughout the country. The timetable set out in the development plan requires that all of these centres will be in place and fully operational this year.
When I took over responsibility for the Legal Aid Board just over 12 months ago there were 39 solicitors and 40 support staff employed in the board's law centres. In 1993 an additional 12 solicitors and 29 support staff were allocated and a further 24 solicitors and 34 support staff will be employed this year to service the new law centres. When these additional staff are recruited the Legal Aid Board will have a total of 75 solicitors and 103 support staff employed in law centres. Staff numbers in the board's head office will also be augmented in 1994 to enable them to deal effectively with the additional work generated in the law centres. These increases mean that, since coming into office, this Government will have more than doubled the number of staff employed by the board.
The position with regard to the waiting times at the board's law centres continues to improve. The waiting time at present in ten of the board's 16 law centres is down to between one and two months which is seven centres more than when I took office; in five centres it is between three and seven months and the remaining centre, Athlone, still has a waiting list in excess of ten months but the numbers on that waiting list are 30 per cent down on the numbers prevailing nine months ago. I am confident that the plan of expansion and development of the service which I have outlined will have a major and lasting impact in reducing further the waiting period in the existing law centres. My hope is that lengthy waiting lists which have already been reduced significantly over the past year will become a thing of the past.
As well as the commitment in the Programme for Government to facilitate access to justice, there is a commitment to examine the possibility of extending legal aid to tribunals. This commitment will be honoured. However, the first priority is to arrange for the opening of the new law centres, to upgrade the system, to have any remaining waiting lists of substance reduced even further and to generate a more broadly based service throughout the country. When that is in place I will consider other aspects of extending the service, having regard to the prevailing budgetary situation. I am glad to say that considerable progress has been made on the commitment to put the legal aid scheme on a statutory basis. The legislation on the matter is at an advanced stage of drafting.
I am concerned to ensure that the legal aid scheme will be operated as effectively and efficiently as possible and that the optimum service can be got from available resources so as to benefit the community. Included in the grant-in-aid to the board in 1994 is a sum of £75,000 to enable the board to increase computerisation of the work in law centres.
I have considered ways, other than legal aid, to improve access to justice. The Family Law Bill, 1994, which is before the Dáil, having been initiated by me a short time ago, contains important new provisions in relation to jurisdiction of the courts. The Bill provides a comprehensive framework within which extensive remedies can be secured through the courts by spouses and children who face the consequences of marriage breakdown. The Bill provides for jurisdiction in proceedings for a decree of nullity of marriage, at present confined to the High Court, to be given also to the Circuit Court. The purpose is to bring that jurisdiction into line with the jurisdiction for separation proceedings, to improve access to the courts and to reduce costs.
The Circuit Court is being empowered also to make ancillary orders in support of spouses where foreign decrees of divorce, separation and nullity are entitled to recognition in the State and to make any declarations in relation to the status of a person's marriage. The District and Circuit Courts will have jurisdiction to order maintenance by way of lump sum and secured payments. That jurisdiction is at present confined to the Circuit Court in separation proceedings only.
The Minister for Justice has also provided measures by way of improving access to justice. Last December she extended the small claims procedure to all District Court areas. Prior to that the small claims procedure was confined to the Dublin Metropolitan District, the District Court area of Cork city and the District Court area of Sligo. Its introduction nationwide represents a definite advance in providing ordinary people with an effective means of obtaining redress. It gives people a means of processing small claims inexpensively, quickly and with a minimum of fuss. The claims are processed by a small claims registrar who tries to reach a satisfactory settlement without the need for a court hearing. The matter is referred to the courts if necessary. The only cost to applicants is an initial fee of £5. Costs are not allowed under the procedure which deals with consumer claims, rent deposits and minor damages. The monetary limit on claims is set at £500.
Various court Acts over the years have demonstrated the value of amending or increasing the various jurisdictions of the District and Circuit Courts. In tandem with such development we must continually seek to promote and develop alternative means of conflict resolution which do not require the respective parties to have recourse to litigation. Legal services do not solve all problems. In certain cases, because of its adversarial nature, legal action may even have the very opposite result.
In the context of marriage breakdown improved access to justice requires that our family law provisions are modernised and that the courts are given full powers to enable justice to be done for parties of broken marriages. Nonetheless, in some of these cases the immediate resort to the law could ruin completely the prospect of reconciliation or of a voluntary settlement which would be in the better interests of the parties and their dependants. The legal aid scheme can benefit from the development of counselling and mediation services because a high proportion of family law cases can and should be resolved without recourse to litigation.
A recurring concern is that legal aid is used by people who should be using other services, such as conciliation and mediation. Where there is the possibility of reconciliation they should be encouraged and facilitated to avail of counselling. It is equally important that where parties can settle the terms of their separation they should be facilitated to do so by way of mediation. The importance of this is recognised in the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989, section 5 of which requires a solicitor acting for an applicant for a decree of separation to ensure the applicant's awareness of alternatives to separation proceedings and to assist attempts at reconciliation. Work of immense value is done by a number of voluntary organisations in the area of marriage counselling for couples who are encountering difficulty in their marriages. I am glad to be able to say that I have secured funding of £750,000 for those organisations in 1994 — an increase of 150 per cent over last year.
The family mediation scheme was set up in Dublin on an experimental basis under the auspices of the Department of Justice. It now operates under the auspices of and is wholly funded by my Department. The purpose of the service is to assist a husband and wife whose marriage has broken down to reach a voluntary agreement about arrangements for children, property, the family home, maintenance and succession rights without the need for court intervention. Under the present scheme mediation is provided free of charge. The service operates from a premises in Dublin but is not confined to those resident in Dublin. A sum of £300,000 has been provided for the service in 1994, which is more than double the 1993 allocation of £124,000. This is to facilitate the expansion and development of the service and to establish it on a permanent basis. I commend the work of the mediation service and I intend to give it all the support I can.
I also commend the dedication shown by the Legal Aid Board and its staff who, while maintaining the existing service, must also ensure that the major development programme which I have described is implemented in full and on time. I want to stress that some of the reforms of the law and legal systems to which I have referred are complementary to the question of improving access of justice. I assure the House that it is my intention to maintain the momentum for change and improvement in all areas of access to justice. I will continue to work towards this end by all the means available to me.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As one of the paid up members of his fan club, he knows I appreciate what he is doing. However, we should not be too lavish with our congratulations because the Minister has brought the legal aid scheme from appalling to just pretty shabby. I am aware of the great effort and work he put into getting extra money for these centres but in spite of that we still have a poor legal aid scheme.
The general population do not seem to have the will to do something for those who require legal aid services. There are still 15 counties without legal aid centres. I know the Minister will rectify that but, before this Government came into office, people tolerated that situation for years. There are also long waiting lists; I realise the Minister has managed to reduce them. There are some great distances to be travelled between centres, for example Letterkenny and Sligo. This too has been tolerated for years and nobody made any effort to change it. I commend the Minister for having tried to do something about it.
Despite the number of solicitors who will be appointed, social welfare claimants will only have one solicitor to 11,000 people while the rest of the population will have one to 700. That is very interesting. For a family court case a solicitor will be paid £75. How many visits will that case involve? How much time will it involve? I know it is the best the Minister can do at the moment, but reading in the papers about the enormous fees paid every day in commercial cases it is worthwhile to point out that the emphasis we put on property rather than people can be clearly seen.
The delays have been dreadful because not only are there civil cases, there are cases involving violence, so people have to put up with violent situations within the home for far longer than they should. I know emergency arrangements can be made but I found an emergency appointment could often take up to three weeks and the fact that we have put up with this scandalous situation for so long is not a credit to us.
I congratulate the Minister on the changes he has made in the Legal Aid Board. All of the new appointments he has made are women. That is an improvement on the situation as it existed when he arrived in his job because there were then 12 male members, the last Minister for Justice having appointed four men to the only vacancies. As legal aid is mainly used by women it would be worthwhile, when the Minister has time and as he has responsibility for equality as well as law reform, to appoint more women to the Legal Aid Board. This was one of the first recommendations on legislation made by the Second Commission on the Status of Women. They thought it would be very important to encourage the taking of a more serious view of the need for legal aid. The amendment is also valuable, because a judiciary with special training would be very useful. Most legal aid cases are to do with family law matters and specialised training would be a great help. The Minister himself wants the extra staff and the extra funds, so I doubt if he would have difficulty with that part of the amendment. On reading the Law Reform Commission consultation paper on family courts I was very struck by the absence of research on family law matters in Ireland. It is difficult to know where to go forward. I hope that the Minister, because he is experienced in this area, will try to see what areas are best dealt with in the courts and what areas are best dealt with by the mediation services.
I am delighted that the mediation service has been taken so seriously by the Minister because one often wonders if the adversarial situation of a family court is the best place to have many of these disputes settled. I have followed what has been happening with the mediation service since 1986 and which, until the Minister arrived on the scene, got very limited financial resources, so I am delighted they have received more assistance.
Perhaps if we looked into the situation regarding family law disputes we could consider making more use of the mediation services. Social workers have said to me that often the institution of a barring order, while it solves the situation at the time regarding the violence within the home, can make the dispute more difficult to deal with in the long run. The Minister is going in the right direction in looking at the mediation service and we should see how we can tie in the court and mediation services together and decide which cases are best going forward to court. Cases such as those involving violence, child sexual abuse and so forth will have to come up before the courts, but many cases would be better served if they were dealt with by mediation.
Agreements made under mediation are far more likely to be adhered to than those made in court because the people involved in mediation feel they have had more power over the situation and there is less conflict. This is particularly important in areas where children are involved, where there may be disputes over the custody of children and so forth. The more we can deal with these situations out of court and in mediation, the better; so I warmly welcome what the Minister has done in getting further money for mediation.
I welcome the prominence he has given to the work done by the voluntary marriage counselling organisations because it would be much better if these family disputes did not occur in the first place. This emphasis is very important and we must try and get at these disputes before they go to court. I am glad the Circuit Court and the District Court are now being empowered to deal with more family law cases. This is an improvement. The more the whole tone of these disputes can be reduced the better for getting an agreeable solution in these cases and where children are involved this is incredibly important.
I am glad the Minister is to extend the scope of the free legal aid service to tribunals. We talked today about social welfare but many people when they have to go up before social welfare appeals are in a pitiful situation because the legislation is extremely complicated and it is very hard for most claimants to deal with it themselves. I am delighted that this is being extended to tribunals.
It is important that people taking a case to the employment appeals tribunal can get free legal aid going there because without a shadow of a doubt people with more money get more justice because they can employ better people.
I am worried about fees payable to solicitors for family law cases under the new scheme. I am delighted that so many solicitors have come forward and said that they will take these cases. The solicitors will probably be charged retention tax on the £75 fee so they will get very little money out of it. In many cases very inexperienced solicitors may be dealing with clients and family law is very difficult. The whole structure of that family and the whole relationship between the parents and their children may depend on what happens in court on that day and if it gets as far as court I would like to be sure that those involved in the court cases were getting the very best possible advice.
Finally, I commend all those who work in the free legal advice centres. Often the most altruistic and idealistic of law students have gone into the centres and have done an enormous amount of work in guiding people in areas where they could not afford to get legal advice themselves or could not wait long enough to get to one of the legal aid centres. I commend what the Minister is doing, but, as I said at the beginning, it is shocking that the citizens of this country tolerated the appalling situation in regard to civil legal aid for so long. While the Minister has improved the situation enormously, and I hope by the end of the year things will have improved further, we have a very long way to go to secure justice for all our citizens in these areas.
I am glad to have the opportunity to support the motion welcoming the commitment of the Minister for Equality and Law Reform in the major expansion that he has undertaken in the civil legal aid service since coming into office. I agree with other Senators who have said that the base was quite low and that any improvement had to be dramatic to have had any effect. The provision in the 1994 budget of almost £5 million to fund the free legal service constitutes an increase of 56 per cent and must be welcomed by everybody. That is not to say that we cannot continue to strive for further improvement or that we should rest on our oars. We must examine what other improvements are required. There is no point in enacting laws if people are not fully protected by them. We should not tolerate a situation where there is one law for those who can pay and no law for those who cannot. I would see this as a step in the right direction, but it is only one step and we need to keep pressing on. I would remind my colleagues on the other side of the House that that will mean extra funding which has to come from somewhere.
You cannot ask people who are attending law centres to pay for that service because they would not be there if they could afford to get legal advice elsewhere. The money, therefore, has to come from the public purse and it is quite hypocritical for Senator Neville to start shouting — as I am sure he is about to — for extra legal centres——
That is not in my script, Senator.
——without providing the extra taxation to fund the provision of such centres. I welcome the Minister's commitment to heading off the problem before it gets to court. It is essential, particularly in family law situations, to keep as many families as possible out of the current legal system, which is highly adversarial. Whatever illfeeling there may be between a couple before they get into court, it is exaggerated and exacerbated by the time they have finished there. While adults can possibly take the strain of such court proceedings, the poor, unfortunate children, witnessing two people tearing themselves apart, cannot. Such proceedings should almost be banned as a blood sport because people in that situation have no mercy for one another and all their failings are laid bare. Any hope there may have been before for any form of civilised behaviour between the partners goes out the window in court. Therefore, any money that can be provided for pre-court action in the form of mediation, conciliation or reconciliation should be provided. It would be more cost effective to have only one mediator as distinct from a judge, barrister, solicitor and the whole legal paraphernalia tied up in the hearing of family law cases.
It is disturbing to find that 97 per cent of the work of the civil legal aid service is taken up in family law cases because there are many more issues that people need help with. I am aware that the Small Claims Court will go some way towards removing such cases from the ambit of the civil legal aid service, but there are many more issues of law which affect people who cannot afford to take on a lawyer. People need to take on the system and the whole way of looking at a problem. The ability to challenge any adjudication concerning the amount of maintenance to be paid by a husband is usually well beyond the reach of a wife, who is the less dominant and less well off partner. People need help in challenging other issues of law, such as partnership agreements in the small business sector, because they cannot afford to go through a private law practice. Much injustice is being done for the want of a proper comprehensive legal advice system.
I am disappointed that the Fine Gael Senators have tabled this amendment for the simple reason that it is an isolated debate. The issue requires more than two hours of discussion. The report came out last week and I have only had my copy for the past few days. There is a lot in it that needs to be discussed and pushing it in here onto another motion is diminishing its impact. I cannot disagree with what Senator Neville has down here——
Are you going to vote against it?
Every chance, I would say.
The Senator is asking me to substitute his amendment for my motion, which I cannot do.
Senator Kelly without interruption, please. The Senator has one minute left.
If Senator Neville is really interested in getting support for his ideas may I suggest that he rephrase his amendment and table an addendum instead.
In that case we would have no problem in giving it 100 per cent support. However, we cannot substitute his amendment for our motion. The issue is deserving of more careful thought because there is much in the document that has to be read and more time should be given to it. I hope Senator Neville will take up my point and, yes, Senator, I will be looking for a legal aid centre in Newcastlewest.
I would like to explain to the Minister of State that Senator Kelly and myself are so close in West Limerick that the Senator could anticipate everything I was going to say. It is a feature of politics in West Limerick that we can anticipate, understand and agree with each other on most issues.
I understand the situation.
I welcome the debate on this important issue which deals with one of the most vulnerable sections of society and one that has been neglected with regard to the application of proper legal aid. It has been neglected in other areas as well but we are dealing with legal aid now and any improvement there is welcome. It is important that everybody, regardless of income, is properly represented in court and has full access to the law. The State should provide this service to people who do not have the financial resources to obtain it. Equality of rights must be granted to every citizen and that must be our aim under the Constitution. The granting of free legal aid is an important arm in ensuring that sections of society that cannot afford it have full access to the law, full legal representation and full defence when required.
Centres have been established throughout the country, but they have been established in areas with high populations. As Senator Kelly said, in some parts of the country people have difficulty obtaining access to those centres for geographical reasons. We are dealing with people who do not have access to transport. Many people do not have cars. When people who cannot afford solicitors come to my clinics with family difficulties I advise them to go to the centre in Limerick. However, travel is an automatic barrier for such people and it is difficult to persuade them to go to the centres.
The Minister should encourage the private solicitor approach. Such solicitors could be more readily available in our smaller towns. People can relate to their local solicitor, who could be available free of charge. If a person approached myself or Senator Kelly in Limerick we could recommend a solicitor who is known to the person and whose office is readily available. That would be preferable to recommending that the person travel 15, 20, 30 or even 50 miles to an area and offices with which the person is not familiar. My remarks are not patronising. That has been my experience in dealing with the family problems of people with no income. Those are the barriers they encounter in obtaining and accepting the free legal aid system.
The legal service is alien to many areas and many sections of society. Many families have not had experience of dealing with the law. People with more income are more aware of the use of the law and of how to get access to the law. People who require free legal aid are often not accustomed to looking to the law to defend them. Usually they have not required legal services. Unfortunately, the number of family law cases which arise each year is growing rapidly. We as public representatives will be aware of that fact because of the number of such cases which are brought to our attention at constituency clinics. That is, of course, a separate issue. However, legal aid must be available to assist those people.
Everybody accepts that the expansion in free legal aid is inadequate. It is welcome but, as Senator Henry said, it is inadequate. We will encourage the Government to continue the expansionary programme and praise the Government when it does so. Senator Kelly has asked how we can fund such a programme. We could reduce the contribution to Dublin Castle from £5 million to £2 million and the contribution to the expansion of Collins Barracks from £5 million to £2 million. That would make £6 million available to apply to this programme.
There are huge waiting lists in the legal area. People who go to law for the first time expect instant reaction. They are unfamiliar with waiting lists in the courts. I might advise a person to go to the free legal aid centre in Limerick. The person will travel the 15 miles on a bus and on his or her return will report that nothing can be done for a number of months. People are surprised at the delay because they expect their cases to dealt with immediately. It is important that we strive to deal with cases swiftly. The personnel in legal aid centres should also explain to people — because often they are not sensitive to people's expectations — that it is not unusual that cases cannot be dealt with immediately, that the cases will be dealt with as quickly as possible and that there is concern for their situation. That would be preferable to simply giving a legalistic response.
I welcome the expansion of free legal aid to tribunals. I am on the Employment Appeals Tribunal and we had a case yesterday where a person who had been dismissed sought an adjournment because a witness could not attend. It would have cost the tribunal an inordinate amount of money and we had to refuse the request. As a consequence the person will have to employ a barrister and solicitor for a second day. The person is out of work, but we had to do our duty. Somebody else had been negligent. However, that unemployed person will be obliged to pay a solicitor and barrister for two days. I believe solicitors and barristers should not be necessary before the Employment Appeals Tribunal and I have consistently argued that case, particularly during the discussion on the Unfair Dismissals Act. The Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, took up the issue, but it is impossible to rectify the situation now. It is a fact of life that people will get solicitors and barristers to put their cases to the employment appeals tribunal and other tribunals. I hope it will not happen in social welfare tribunals. The people involved in that area are open and sympathetic and an adversarial approach is not necessary.
The area of family law litigation is highly unsatisfactory and our amendment expresses that. Many Circuit Court judges are asked to hear up to 70 cases per day. It is impossible. Attempting to deal with that amount of work means that no case is dealt with correctly regardless of the efforts of the Judiciary. Quick decisions and lack of full consideration of cases is not in the long term interest of justice, children and spouses. It is more important that sufficient time is given to ensure that the best decision is made rather than getting through a volume of cases. About 12 months ago we discussed this in a motion before the Seanad. It is an area of concern which we could debate again.
We should look at the physical conditions of courts. They are appalling and are a barrier to proper justice. There should be proper waiting rooms. People must sit on cold benches in draughty courthouses which were built up to 150 years ago. I raised the issue of conditions in our coroners' courts during the discussion on the Suicide Bill. I have spoken to people who went to those courts after the suicide of a family member and heard of the appalling conditions in which they had to wait and listen to other cases. Despite the pressure on those people, they do not have a waiting room. Sometimes they do not even have heat. The Minister should look at that area and try to provide proper facilities. The family court facilities in Dublin are good. If there were similar facilities throughout the country we would be satisfied.
I accept that procedures should be established to avoid court cases in family law. There should be greater mediation to ensure that relationships are not further broken down. Litigation exacerbates the breakdown of such relationships. I accept the motion before the House and I am sure that the other parties will accept our amendment to it. Regardless of the way we started the debate, we can leave the House amicably.
I would have liked to continue the air of bonhomie created by Senator Neville. It might have been easier to do so if his party had added detail to the motion rather than deleting its good aspects. It is difficult to accept an amendment which deletes the welcome to the Government's commitment to improve access to justice through the development and expansion of the services of the Legal Aid Board and replaces it with something entirely different. It would be useful if the Opposition parties, when confronted with a motion from the Government parties, would acknowledge the good parts of the motion rather than deleting them.
I might start a row by saying that I am disturbed by certain underlying aspects to this motion and the thrust of the Minister's contribution and some of my colleagues. I am sorry the Minister of State, Deputy Burton, has left the House because she was nodding her head vigorously when Senator Neville welcomed the family mediation services and said that recourse to the courts for those with marriages in difficulty should be a last resort. This is at odds with comments attributed to the Minister of State in the media recently, where she was quoted as saying that there is an over-emphasis on families and family issues. Perhaps the Minister of State was misquoted, but this debate would have been an ideal opportunity to explain her position. Family values are under attack. I have serious difficulties with the thrust of some of the pronouncements made in the public arena about family values and the direction we seem to be taking. However, that is an argument for another day and another place and different legislation.
I welcome the expansion of the free legal aid scheme. I particularly welcome the setting up of a new law centre in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim. This is the first time such an initiative has been taken in my home county and I applaud the Minister for his enterprise. I was especially interested in the staffing measures he announced to coincide with the expansion of these law centres nationwide. The law centre in Carrick-on-Shannon, despite its part-time status, will create new jobs. The Minister has promised 24 new solicitors and 34 support staff, including law clerks and clerical assistants, for the new centres. I hope these personnel, and especially the support staff, will be recruited from the immediate Carrick-on-Shannon area where there is a high incidence of unemployment.
I also welcome the extension of the small claims court. We have been lagging behind in this area in a European context for some time. That will not only take some of the workload from the District Courts but will also provide more immediate, greater and effective access for those submitting small claims.
The Minister — several of my colleagues have also made this point — said the reason for the longer waiting lists in this area is due mainly to family difficulties. The Minister said:
Since 1990 a good deal of the reason for the build up in cases with law centres has been the coming into operation of the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, 1989... Applications for judicial separation under the 1989 Act, which comprise a substantial part of legal aid work, are more complex and time consuming to process... The number of people seeking legal aid for judicial separation has increased from 133 in 1988-89... to 524 in 1992.
I found this aspect fascinating — there is no fascination in the figures; it is a story of heartbreak and sadness — in the context of the debate about the proposed divorce referendum. If there is currently an increase in the number of cases coming to the Legal Aid Board for applications under the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, one wonders whether this development will change to any appreciable degree if divorce is introduced.
While legislation like the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act has permitted people to seek judicial redress, the Minister stopped short of rushing headlong into divorce by encouraging counselling and reconciliation and then provides an extra £750,000 to voluntary bodies operating in this area. It would be churlish of anybody not to welcome that development; indeed, this is the direction the Government should take.
Would people see divorce as a first or a last resort if it were introduced? Would the increasing tendency for people to go to law centres to seek redress under the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act continue if a divorce environment was created? At the end of the day, the only ones who would benefit from this would be the lawyers. Family matters are increasingly been taken into the area of jurisprudence where both lawyers and barristers are required. One cannot develop the argument fully at this stage in the absence of the Government's proposals in this area. However, this point re-emphasises what I said at the outset. There is a disturbing trend and I would have serious difficulty with its continuance in the manner suggested.
I also welcome the family mediation service initiative, but only in the context of my contribution which is centred more on family reconciliation and mediation than separation. I do not want to give the impression that I am ostrich-like in my attitude. It is no longer tenable to suggest that someone is more or less conservative in their thinking because they come from a certain part of the country. I could cite several cases of marital difficulties and separations in my home town which has a population of 700, and I am sure the same would be true of any town or village. The State has a responsibility to do its utmost to ensure that married people stay together rather than encouraging them to separate. I know some liberals would throw up their hands and say I am suggesting the State should decide on the direction marriages should take. If the State is already beefing up the mediation and reconciliation services by giving them more money, maybe we should go the whole way and ensure that the best service is provided to deal with marital difficulties.
I welcome the extension of the free legal aid scheme. Although its funding has increased by 52 per cent, we are still well behind the rest of Europe. Even with this increase, the amount we spend on free legal aid per head of population is £1.46 compared to £4 for Northern Ireland and £4.80 in the Netherlands. There is still a long way to go.
The free legal aid system deals almost exclusively with family law matters. However, the scheme is still not comprehensive enough. The Minister gave a commitment to look at representations before tribunals, for instance, the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Social Welfare Appeals Tribunal. There was a commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to include tribunals in the scheme. Perhaps the Minister would consider this extension. The scheme should also be extended to help in the preparation for the divorce referendum and I am sure more pressure will be put on the various centres throughout the country. Although there has been an extension, further funding is required.
Many speakers talked about the high percentage of family law cases which these centres deal with. I agree with previous speakers who asked for increased funding for mediation services. People who take cases to court are often at the end of their tether by the time they get there. Many such cases might not go to court if counselling and mediation services were provided beforehand. It is important to provide extra staff to counsel children. We also need to appoint extra members of the Judiciary who have specialised training in family law matters. I welcome the recent appointment of Ms. Catherine McGuinness to the Circuit Court because she has great experience in family law matters. We need more people like her on the Bench. Many judges need specialised training because this is a specialised area and I would like to see changes taking place in this regard.
I welcome the initiatives taken by the Minister and I offer my party's support for them. The scheme should be further extended because, although we have increased the funding, we have a long way to go.
I opened this debate at 6 o'clock this evening when the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, was in the House. I now welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy Stagg, to the House.
It has been a good debate, but I want to refer to a number of points made by Senator Mooney about the regard of Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare, Deputy Burton, for family values and family life. Her record in defending people, particularly women, is without parallel. Divorce is a matter for the partnership Government's programme and it will be implemented. This issue will be put to the people in a referendum. This decision has been taken by both parties in Government and I am happy this will happen.
The debate about civil legal aid was about the hidden Ireland where women continued to suffer. They suffered beatings, deprivation and indignities because they had no redress. The rich could consult with lawyers and psychiatrists, while the poor had to continue suffering. I am delighted that the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, has seen fit to double the budget and the staff and to open more legal aid centres in this country, which has not been attempted before. This will be of benefit to the poor and to the fabric of our society. I commend Deputy Taylor and the Government for their actions because the Cabinet must always make a decision about spending cash.
It is has been a generous debate and I accept the contributions made by Senator Cosgrave and Senator Enright, who are practising lawyers. Except for the last part of the amendment, it addresses questions proper to the Minister for Justice. The last part calls on the Government to provide adequate funds and staff for existing and new legal aid centres. Both sides of the House must agree that this requirement has been met by the existing centres and by funding. I agree with Senator Neville that the condition of courthouses is disgraceful. It is inhuman that families must queue in public to transact business on the most traumatic day of their lives and this should be changed.
I accept the first three sections of the Opposition's amendment. If it is not pressed to a vote, I agree with the permission of the Whips, to address the question of the appointment of members of the Judiciary who have specialised training. No one disagrees with the fact they need training because decisions have been made by the Bench which have made us recoil in horror.
I agree also that extra staff is needed to deal with the delays in child assessments. This is one area where the Opposition and the Government are not divided, unless we invent divisions. We will only invent them for political point scoring which satisfies the politicians, angers the public and resolves nothing. I accept the amendment and we will discuss it at a future date.
The House agrees with this matter and I accept Senator Magner's goodwill in relation to it. As a result, we will not press the amendment.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.