I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this important matter. As the Minister of State knows, the cornerstone of decent society is access to justice. Civil legal aid plays a crucial role in this access to justice. A review of the civil legal aid system in Ireland is long overdue. Demand for a root-and-branch review grew over the years, because it became apparent that there was an unmet legal need.
Last summer, it was announced that a review would take place in the third quarter of 2021. I believe it was the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who announced the review of the legal aid system, on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who was on maternity leave at the time. The Minister of State, therefore, would be very familiar with this issue. That review was very much welcomed, because there was a wide awareness of the unmet legal need. Unfortunately, that review has not yet commenced, and it is now mid-February 2022. When will that review commence?
Last July, Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, wrote to the Minister for Justice on behalf of more than 40 NGOs. I have that letter here with me. I would like to add that I was a FLAC volunteer for a number of years. It is an excellent organisation and it provides an excellent service. It wrote this letter to welcome this announcement of the review on behalf of more than 40 NGOs, charities and other non-profits working with marginalised and vulnerable communities throughout Ireland. These organisations include Women’s Aid, Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland, Barnardos Ireland, Pavee Point, AsIAm and the Mercy Law Resource Centre. These organisations, as I said, work with a broad range of communities throughout Ireland, such as migrants, Travellers, members of the Roma community, deaf people, lone parents, disabled people, victims and survivors of domestic violence, unemployed people, the working poor and more. They have identified, through their long years of work with people and their advocacy on behalf of these people, an unmet legal need in the current civil legal aid system.
In their letter, they have suggested a number of elements that are essential to the review. I am calling on the Minister of State to confirm that these elements will be contained in the review by the Department of Justice. First, it must be a root-and-branch review that is comprehensive in scope and that will map the unmet legal need. It should explore the functions of the Legal Aid Board. The eligibility criteria should be seriously looked at, including the means test and the financial contribution. The areas of law covered by the scheme need to be updated. The methods of service delivery, such as community law centres and specialised legal services for disadvantaged groups and individuals, should be looked at. An important point is that it must be chaired by an independent person of status, such as a judge with an interest in access to justice and public law. At its centre, the review must have the voices of those currently experiencing the unmet legal need and involve all key stakeholders. It must measure the civil legal aid system against international standards and compliance with the State’s obligation under the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities and the public sector equality and human rights duty contained in section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality and Commission Act 2014.
This review needs to start immediately. We are failing people every single day. As a modern, progressive and wealthy society, we cannot stand over it any longer.