I am sure that the Deputy appreciates that the provision of legal aid is an essential support for people who lack the financial means to receive appropriate representation in legal and court proceedings and is key to ensuring equality of access to justice and that the interests of justice are served.
I would like to assure the Deputy that I am fully aware of the importance of value for money in delivering legal aid and of the need for any and all steps to be taken to control fraud, identify and address irregularities and to engage with users in the legal profession to ensure the fair and efficient administration of both criminal and civil legal aid schemes. I am assured that the Irish system of legal aid represents good value for public money compared to other comparable jurisdictions.
The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme is a vital part of the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 provides that free legal aid may be granted in certain circumstances for the defence of persons of insufficient means in criminal proceedings. Under the 1962 Act, the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. An applicant must establish to the satisfaction of the court that their means are insufficient to enable them to pay for legal representation themselves. The provision of criminal legal aid has been established by the Courts as a Constitutional right.
The nature of the Scheme is that it is demand-led, driven by the incidence of crime, detection rates and prosecutions of cases through the courts systems. While this can make it difficult to anticipate costs, it is not the case that there is unlimited access to such support and improvements and efficiencies are consistently pursued.
Following a recommendation made by my Department's Internal Audit Committee, a Criminal Legal Aid Oversight Committee was set up in 2016. The Committee is made up of representatives of my Department , the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Chief State Solicitor's Office and the Legal Aid Board. This Committee oversees and advises on the management and control of the criminal legal aid scheme.
My Department is also preparing a draft General Scheme of a Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill, the key purpose of which is to transfer the administration of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme to the Legal Aid Board and to give effect to Government Programme commitments in respect of criminal legal aid, including introducing a more rigorous and objective means testing system for criminal legal aid, provision for contributions by applicants, and new sanctions. It is my intention to seek approval of Government for the General Scheme of the Bill and submit it to the Oireachtas for pre-legislative scrutiny as early as possible.
With respect to civil legal aid, this is administered by the Legal Aid Board and is subject to both means and merit tests. A review of the Administration of Civil Justice in Ireland is currently taking place which will examine areas of civil justice with a view to improving access to justice and reducing the cost of litigation. An underlying aim of the review is to ensure that administration of civil justice in Ireland is able to respond to changing values and attitudes in our society and to promote equal access to justice.
These initiatives build on the reforms put in place by the Mediation Act 2017 which encourages the use of mediation as an alternative to court based proceedings, with a view to achieving outcomes that respond to the needs of parties thereby reducing the potential cost of litigation. Legislation is currently in preparation on a family court system which will also support the pursuit of alternative dispute resolution options, thereby helping to reduce costs.