Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Questions (501)

Michael Lowry

Question:

501. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the current waiting time to access legal aid in County Tipperary, both north and south; the way this compares nationally; if his attention has been drawn to the distress and upset being caused to those awaiting legal assistance; if he is aware of the detrimental impact this delay is having on those in financial distress, for example, with mortgage repayments; if he will sanction further staff to tackle this backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4971/14]

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Written answers (Question to Justice)

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 upon the applicant's appearance in Court.

In relation to civil legal aid, it should be noted that the demand for legal services from the Legal Aid Board (the 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 for general legal services (excluding asylum) in 2011 was 93% greater than it was in 2006. Demand in 2013 was similar to what it was in 2012. 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 2014 as it was in the previous three years.

Nevertheless it is a challenging environment that has resulted in lengthened waiting times for those seeking legal services for matters that are not prioritised. I know that waiting times are a matter of constant concern to the Board and that it keeps them under very active review. I am also aware that the Board is constantly keeping the delivery of its services under review with a view to getting legal services to those most in need of them as quickly as possible.

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 concluded a solicitor recruitment competition for the Board last year from which a number of permanent appointments have been made and a number of temporary positions have also been filled.

In September 2013 I signed into law by way of Regulations, a package of proposals from the Board for the revision of the financial eligibility and contributions provisions governing the granting of civil legal aid. The Regulations include a reduction in the capital eligibility threshold for legal services and they also include increases in the contributions payable by most persons seeking legal services. These provisions should have some impact, albeit relatively marginal, on the resources available to the Board.

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 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. You will find as an appendix to this response, the waiting times in the various law centres for matters that are not prioritised. Where the triage approach is operative there is a waiting time for the triage appointment and a waiting time for the second consultation. A first review of the operation of the pilot indicated that clients were 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. It will take time for the full benefits of this system to materialise;

- In November 2011 I transferred responsibility for the management and administration of the State funded family mediation service to the Board. A key reason for this transferring 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 Dublin District Family Court sits) involving the co-location of the courts and a mediation service with a legal service located there also. Similar initiatives have now been introduced in Cork and Naas and are being evaluated. I know that the Board is working particularly hard on promoting mediation as a meaningful option;

- While the Board's asylum related legal services were previously funded from a separate grant, since 2012 I have funded the Board on the basis of a single ‘grant-in-aid’. With the drop in demand for asylum, the Board has taken steps to integrate the delivery of its asylum related services 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;

- I am aware that the Board has maintained a high level of usage of private solicitors for family law cases in the District Court. Cases in the District Court are often those that need the most immediate remedy;

- I am also aware that the Board continues to engage with other key players in the justice / legal area such as the Courts Service and the Health Service Executive, 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 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.

Appendix

Waiting times in Law Centres as of 1 January 2014

Law Centre

General – Law centres not operating triage

Waiting time for a triage appointment

Further waiting time where triage appointment previously given

Months

Months

Months

Blanchardstown

4

Brunswick St

8

3

Clondalkin

1

8

Finglas

9

0

Gardiner St

0

20

Tallaght

2

13

Popes Quay

8

South Mall

12

2

Athlone

7

0

Castlebar

2

7

Cavan

3

2

Dundalk

4

Ennis

10

5

Galway- Francis St

5

14

Galway – Seville H

2

3

Kilkenny

1

11

Letterkenny

3

17

Limerick

9

Longford

4

4

Monaghan

4

Navan

4

6

Nenagh

1

6

Newbridge

1

19

Portlaoise

8

14

Sligo

2

12

Tralee

4

Tullamore

4

Waterford

6

Wexford

11

Wicklow

2