Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Questions (494)

Michelle Mulherin

Question:

494. Deputy Michelle Mulherin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality further to the topical debate issue of 15 December 2011, the need to tackle growing waiting list for persons requiring free civil legal services from law centres and to consider charging recipients of criminal legal aid, and considering the report of the Task Force on Cost Reductions on Criminal Legal Aid, the status of the examination of the introduction of an application fee for criminal legal aid that was to be undertaken by his Department officials in consultation with the Legal Aid Board and the Office of the Attorney General, completion of which was expected in the second half of 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9903/13]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Justice)

I wish to inform the Deputy that under the terms of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995, as passed by the Oireachtas, the Legal Aid Board is independent in the operation of its functions and decisions on individual cases are a matter for the Board. The Board prioritises certain categories of cases and these cases will receive an immediate or near immediate service. The main categories of case types that are prioritised are public law child care cases, child abduction cases and domestic violence cases. In addition, the Board has been piloting a triage approach to service delivery and this approach is operative in a number of law centres. The pilot is in response to lengthening waiting times. The aim of the triage approach is that every applicant gets to see a solicitor within a period of one month for the purpose of getting legal advice (consultations are broadly limited to 45 minutes). If the applicant requires further services they remain on the waiting list. There is or has been a backlog of applicants to be seen for triage purposes hence it is taking time to reduce the waiting time for such an appointment to one month.

The Board is taking other steps in an effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery including introducing a new case management system in its law centres, integrating its mediation and legal services, integrating its Refugee Legal Service into the general law centre service delivery model and maintaining a high level of usage of private solicitors for family law cases in the District Court. The reality is that the Board must live within its budget and is subject to the public service recruitment moratorium (there is a very limited derogation). Demand for the Board's services has increased significantly since the downturn in the economy. There was a 10% drop in demand at the general law centres in 2012 compared to 2011. However, demand in 2011 was 93% greater than it was in 2006. The capacity to provide a meaningful service is a priority for the Board. In 2013, the Board will examine other options in an effort to enable legal services to be provided promptly to those most in need of them.

In relation to Criminal Legal Aid, total expenditure for 2012 came to €50.5 million, a reduction of 10% over the 2011 figure of €56.1 million. This reduction in the annual expenditure is the largest ever recorded and represents a fall of approximately €10 million, or 16%, over the peak recorded in 2009. As the Scheme is demand led it is difficult to predict and control expenditure because it depends on the number of criminal cases coming before the courts. The Task Force on Cost Reductions on Criminal Legal Aid identified a range of measures which could potentially contribute to costs reductions in this area. As I stated in the Topical Issues debate referred to in the Deputy's question, a requirement on applicants to make an initial payment could give rise to constitutional difficulties and difficulties arising from the European Convention on Human Rights. It would not be feasible to introduce arrangements which give rise to further administrative expense and demands on resources for no real benefit. A new Criminal Legal Aid Bill is planned to update and strengthen the system of granting legal aid including transferring responsibility for the administration of the Scheme to the Legal Aid Board. Consideration is being given to including in the Bill provisions to, inter alia, regulate better the taking of statements of means, increase the sanction for false declarations, allow the Board to verify the means of applicants and to prosecute cases of abuse. Provision to give power to the Legal Aid Board to recover the costs of criminal legal aid or to make application to a court to revoke a criminal legal aid certificate are also under consideration. These provisions must have regard to a person's rights to the presumption of innocence, to a fair trial and to be given legal aid, where appropriate. I hope it will be possible to publish the Bill during the course of this year.