Thursday, 26 February 2004

Questions (82)

Joe Sherlock

Question:

78 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps being taken to reduce the waiting time for an appointment with a solicitor at the legal aid centres given that the average waiting time is five months and that this can rise to 13 months at some centres; his views on whether such waiting times are acceptable; the additional funding which has been provided in the Estimates for 2004 to reduce waiting times; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6256/04]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The Deputy will be aware that under the terms of section 30 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, the provision of legal aid and advice is the function of the Legal Aid Board and that in accordance with the provisions of section 3 (3) of that Act, the board is independent in the exercise of its functions.

The board continuously monitors the operation of its law centre network to ensure its resources are used to maximum effect in making its services available to the greatest number of eligible persons. The additional management posts made available in recent years are enabling the board to develop a more structured change management approach to the provision of civil legal aid throughout the State. This approach is geared to examine the throughput of cases at law centres and where waiting times, for whatever reason, become excessive the position is examined by the board with a view to taking remedial action.

The Deputy will be aware that the grant-in-aid to the Legal Aid Board for this year is €18.388 million, an increase of almost 5% over the 2003 provision of €17.539 million. The resources provided to the Legal Aid Board in recent years has increased significantly. In 1997 the grant-in-aid available to the board was €10.656. The figure for 2004 represents an increase of almost 73% during this period. During this period also sanction to employ additional staff was conveyed to the board. Since 1997 sanctioned posts in the board's law centre network increased from 191 to 215, of which 89 are solicitor posts, an increase of eight solicitor posts.

With regard to persons waiting to see a solicitor, the board operates a procedure whereby priority is accorded for certain categories of cases, for example, domestic violence, child care, child abduction and other cases where there are time limits. These cases are dealt with immediately and such applicants are not placed on a waiting list. Such a system for priorities is necessary to ensure, for example, persons who are subjected to domestic violence and cases involving the care of children are provided with a speedy service. In 2002 priority appointments were offered by law centres to over 20% of applicants for the board's services.

In addition, managing solicitors at law centres have authority to give priority to any case on the waiting list at their centres. For example, if an applicant is gravely ill, or in cases where an applicant is in danger of losing assets or of losing title to a legal remedy if legal services are delayed, the managing solicitor can accord such cases priority status.