I wish to inform the Deputy that there is no waiting period associated with the granting of criminal legal aid as under the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962, the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid on the applicant's appearance in Court.
In relation to civil legal aid, I am to advise that demand for legal services from the Legal Aid Board has increased significantly since the down-turn in the economy. While there was a 10% drop in demand at the general law centres in 2012 compared to 2011, nevertheless the demand in 2011 was 93% greater than it was in 2006. The Board has not been subject to the sort of cuts to its grant-in-aid that other public service bodies have had to experience and I have been able to maintain the Board’s grant-in-aid at the same level for 2013 as it was in 2012 (and 2011). Nevertheless it is a challenging environment that has resulted in lengthened waiting times for those seeking legal services for matters that are not prioritised. Notwithstanding the pressures on resources, the Government has further supported the Board by approving exemptions from the moratorium to enable the organisation to recruit front-line staff for direct service delivery. The Public Appointments Service is currently running a solicitor recruitment competition for the Board from which appointments, both temporary and permanent, will be made within the next month or so.
In response to the changed environment the Board has taken steps to try and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of its legal services. Those steps include the following:
- The Board has been piloting a 'triage' approach in its law centres to service delivery and this approach is operative in most of its centres at this stage. 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. A first review of the operation of the pilot indicated that clients were overwhelmingly satisfied with this particular service initiative. This was because they got early access to a solicitor for advice on their legal disputes that provided clarity about the options open to them and the process through which their disputes might be resolved.
- In August 2012 the Board introduced a new case management system in its law centres. This is a ‘start to end’ system which will in the medium term deliver efficiencies in terms of the administration aspect as well as in relation to the delivery of the legal services;
- In November 2011 the Board took responsibility for the management and administration of the State funded family mediation service. A key reason for transferring this responsibility to the Board was to improve the synergies between the State funded family mediation services and the State funded civil legal aid services (most of the demand for legal services is in the area of family law). Improving the synergies will be for the benefit of the customer and will help move away from a ‘litigation first’ approach that may on occasion be too common. Already there are very positive signs from a pilot initiative operating in Dolphin House (where the District Family Court sits) involving the co-location of the courts and a mediation service with a legal service located there also. Steps are now being taken to replicate this initiative in a number of other locations including Cork and Naas;
- With the drop in demand for asylum services the Board has taken steps to integrate its Refugee Legal Service into the general law centre service delivery model thus effectively transferring resources from the asylum area to the general legal service area where the demands have increased;
- The Board has maintained a high level of usage of private solicitors for family law cases in the District Court;
- The Board has continued to engage with other key players in the justice / legal area with a view to trying to ensure that State funded resources that impact on its area of business are used to best effect.
I am currently considering a package of proposals from the Board for the revision of the financial eligibility and contributions provisions governing the granting of civil legal aid. These provisions may have some impact, albeit relatively marginal, on the demand for legal services and the resources available to the Board.
I am very conscious of the difficulties that delays in accessing legal aid can give rise to and I am aware that the Board is also keenly aware of those difficulties and is working to ensure the delays are minimised to the greatest extent possible. I have noted some of the steps that it has taken and I know that it is constantly keeping the delivery of its services under review with a view to getting services to those most in need of them as quickly as possible.