I wish to advise the Deputy that legal aid in Ireland falls under two separate categories, i.e. civil legal aid and criminal legal aid and I will deal with these separately as follows.
Civil legal aid in Ireland is delivered by the Legal Aid Board, which is a statutory independent body. Legal services are delivered through the Board's 29 law centres and a small number of specialist units. The service is complemented through the use of private practitioners.
In the last four years there has been a considerable increase in demand to the Board for legal services and this coincides with the downturn in the economy. In 2007 10,164 persons sought legal services from the Board in relation to general civil (non asylum) matters. This figure increased to 17,175 in 2010 and is likely to be greater again this year. Inevitably, this has created huge pressures for the Board and its capacity to deliver legal services within a reasonable period of time. As of the 1 November 2011, there were just under 4,800 persons waiting for a first appointment with a solicitor. This compares to 1,681 on the 1 January 2009. It is worth pointing out, though, that certain types of priority cases, domestic violence for example, receive an immediate or near immediate service and these account for about 15% of all legal aid cases.
The challenge for the Board in 2012 will be to continue to provide services in view of the significant increase in demand coupled with the fact that increasing the funding for the service is not currently a viable option. The Board's grant-in-aid, which accounts for the vast majority of its funding, has fallen from almost €27 million in 2008 to just over €24 million this year. Funding allocations for the Board for 2012 will of course be announced next week.
The Legal Aid Board has already taken a number of steps in order to try to optimise the service in view of the pressures it is under. I am aware that the Board's Chief Executive has been working on options to further respond to the situation in respect of the demand for the service. One approach which will be considered is a pilot ‘triage' service early in 2012. The objective of the triage service will be to ensure that every applicant for services gets to see a solicitor for the purpose of getting early legal advice within a short period of time.
The House will be aware that since the 1 November the Board has assumed responsibility for the Family Mediation Service. I took the decision to integrate the Family Mediation Service into the Board because it is my view that mediation in many family law cases offers a better route and outcome for the parties than the adversarial environment of the courts. I am informed that the Board is currently reviewing the operation of the State funded mediation service with a view to achieving synergies with its legal services and better options in terms of resolving family disputes.
The Board keeps under review the arrangements on which it retains professionals (primarily solicitors and barristers). The arrangements of foot of which barristers are retained have been in place since 1998 and are currently under review. There will be a level of restructuring of the current arrangements which will involve a reduction in the fees payable in most case types. The Board considers that the proposed revised arrangements will not significantly impact on the availability of barristers to take cases. It is not anticipated that there will be a significant reduction in the overall amount the Board pays to barristers — what is anticipated is that there will be more cases done for the same amount of money.
As the Deputy will be aware, the nature of Criminal Legal Aid is that it is demand led and is driven by the incidence of crime, detection rates and prosecution of cases through the courts system. It is therefore, difficult to control costs but in the current circumstances it is essential to do everything possible to control and reduce expenditure across all areas of the criminal justice system, including criminal legal aid.
A range of cost reduction measures were implemented this year including a 10% reduction in the fees and rates payable to legal practitioners under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. As these reductions were introduced in the third and fourth quarters of this year, their full impact on expenditure will not be apparent until 2012.
I am aware of the impact on the legal profession of these reductions and have been concerned to ensure that legal representation can continue to be provided to those who need it. As with other sectors of the economy, the cumulative effect of reductions in fee rates paid has been a source of deep concern amongst practitioners about the level of cuts and the financial implications for firms and their employees. However, as the Deputy will appreciate, at this point there is no area of our society that is not feeling the effects of reduced incomes and the difficult economic climate.
I am not prepared to give an absolute commitment that there will be no reduction in the rates of fees paid under the scheme in 2012. This would be irresponsible given that I cannot know with certainty how economic matters will progress in the very volatile climate in which we find ourselves. However, what I can say is that every effort is being made to avoid that possibility. In that regard, the Task Force which I established to identify any structural changes necessary within the Courts system to achieve cost reductions in the medium to longer term, has identified a number of measures which have the potential to reduce costs and increase efficiencies, not just on criminal legal aid, but for other parts of the Justice sector such as An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service. I have instructed my officials to move to implement these initiatives, where possible, by end 2012 and to ensure that any measures that require, for example, legislative change are prioritised.
I am fully committed, as are my colleagues, to delivering savings and meeting the public expenditure targets for 2012 which will become known after the Budget to be announced next week.
The Deputy should also be aware that in addition to the cost reduction measures, I intend to publish in 2012 a new Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Amendment Bill which will, amongst other measures, include a provision to transfer responsibility for the management and administration of criminal legal aid from the Department to the Legal Aid Board.