The Legal Aid Board provides legal advice and aid under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 and the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 1996-2017. The Board delivers these services through directly employed solicitors in its network of law centres around the country and private solicitors from its private practitioner panels.
There are 30 full time and 12 part-time law centres. Specific law centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway include an international protection speciality and there are also dedicated units in Dublin dealing with personal injury and/or medical negligence cases and cases involving children at risk (i.e. proceedings brought by Tusla).
Applicants for legal aid must meet the financial eligibility criteria under section 29 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 and the Civil Legal Aid Regulations 1996 to 2017. This provides that their disposable income (less certain allowances) must be below €18,000 and their disposable capital (less certain allowances and excluding the value of the home in which they live) must be below €100,000. The application must meet the merits criteria in sections 24 and 28(2) of the 1995 Act. There is a reduced merits criteria for cases involving the welfare of children. In practice, legal aid is rarely refused in family law cases.
It should also be noted that civil legal aid and advice are generally not free. When an applicant first sees a solicitor, they have to pay an advice contribution. The minimum advice contribution is €30. Depending on an applicant’s income, they might have to pay up to €150. Clients must pay an aid contribution if they require representation in court. The minimum aid contribution is €130. The amount of the aid contribution includes the advice contribution.
There are some exceptions to the requirement for applicants to pay a contribution. Since September 2013 applicants for legal services in relation to defending childcare proceedings brought by the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) do not pay either an advice contribution or an aid contribution. It should be noted that this applies only to the defence of applications for care orders and supervision brought by the Agency and appeals to the Circuit Court. It does not apply to cases where the applicant is the applicant/plaintiff in proceedings against the Agency pursuant to parts of the Child Care Act other than parts III and IV (except where such applications are ancillary to the defence of the main child care proceedings) e.g. for access to children in care.
From the 1st of January, 2018 persons seeking civil legal aid in domestic violence cases in the District Court were no longer required to pay a contribution. Applicants for legal aid to assist with a claim for international protection only need to pay a contribution of €10.
The Legal Aid Board can waive the contribution in cases of undue hardship. The Legal Aid Board can recover the costs it incurred in providing legal aid in the event that money or real property is recovered or preserved on the legally aided person’s behalf arising from legal proceedings. Again this can be waived in cases of hardship.
In the District Court the vast majority of private family law cases are currently referred out to private solicitors and are not kept waiting, particularly if they have court cases pending.
In the Circuit Court, the majority of family law cases (almost all of which are divorce and judicial separation cases) are handled within the law centres. Due to demand and budgetary constraints, legal aid applicants involved in these cases may have to wait for a first appointment with a solicitor.
In terms of the service provided, once a person is financially eligible for legal aid and is granted a legal aid certificate, the solicitor is required to deliver a full representation service to the end of the case.
In law centres where waiting times are persistently long the Board may introduce an early advice only service so clients obtain timely advice about their legal rights while waiting for representation.