I wish to inform the Deputy that the Legal Aid 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’. A first review of the operation of the pilot indicated that clients were satisfied with this particular service initiative. This was because they got relatively 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.
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. As of 1 March 2014 waiting times for a first consultation were less than one month for all applicants at two law centres operating triage. On 1 March there were 112 people waiting at these centres representing 5% of the total numbers waiting for a first consultation at centres operating triage.
While the Board aims for all applicants to receive a triage appointment within one month, in O’Donoghue v Legal Aid Board ( 4 IR 204) the High Court held that four months was not an unreasonable time for an applicant to wait for legal services. In eight centres operating triage waiting times for a first consultation are less than four months. Approximately 31% of the applicants who were waiting for a service at a law centre operating triage as of 1 March will receive a service within four months. There are also four further centres that do not operate triage on the basis that their waiting time for a substantive appointment with a solicitor is under four months.
It should also be noted that the Board operates a “priority” service in certain cases. Where a priority service is offered for the particular case type applicants are given the first available appointment with a solicitor. Details of the case types that are treated as priority are listed below. During February 2014, 15% of the total numbers who received a first consultation were given an early appointment on the basis of the matter being priority.
Priority is given to applicants seeking legal services in the following categories of cases:-
- child abduction proceedings;
- where there is a real danger of children being taken out of the jurisdiction without the consent of the applicant;
- proceedings on foot of Part IV of the Child Care Act 1991 or applicants presenting with cases that involve a risk of such proceedings;
- domestic violence;
- where a maintenance debtor has been served with a summons / warrant on foot of section 9A of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976, has appeared in Court and has applied for civil legal aid having been advised of his/her entitlement to do so by the Judge;
- where, under the Statute of Limitations, there is a danger that the time limits for issuing proceedings may expire unless immediate action is taken;
- where there is a danger of time limits expiring;
- where there is a danger that assets may be reduced / disposed of so that they would be unavailable to meet the claims of the applicant;
- District Court and Circuit Court appeals, where the case has been dealt with through the private practitioner service and services are now being sought from the law centre;
- legal services for complainants in rape and certain sexual assault cases;
- legal aid for persons in respect of whom a sex offenders order is being sought;
- where the other party’s nationality, domicile or habitual residence enables them to seek a similar remedy in another jurisdiction and the applicant is likely to be prejudiced if he/she does not initiate proceedings first;
- asylum cases; and
- managing solicitors retain a residual discretion to provide a priority service in other cases where, having regard to the particular case concerned, as compared with other applications on the applications record, and to their own knowledge and experience, they consider that it is appropriate that a particular applicant be given specific priority over other applicants for legal services.