Philip O’Leary is the (relatively) new chairman of the Legal Aid Board. He spoke with Mark McDermott, editor of the Law Society Gazette about the challenges of running the €100 million operation over the next five years

The new chairman of the Legal Aid Board is something of a working class hero – though he shuns that description. Despite having reached the pinnacle in his law firm – he’s also managing partner of FitzGerald Solicitors,Lapps Quay in Cork – it’s obvious when speaking with Philip O’Leary that his legal career hasn’t been handed to him on a plate.

From what he describes as “a very modest working-class background that I’m quite proud of”, he was the first in his family to studylaw. Originally from Farranree on the north side of Cork city, he went to school in ‘The Mon’.

“My father was working as a labourer with the corporation. My mother worked in Sunbeam in the factory. I remember tough times growing up. It was a large family; there were seven of us, and I know all about difficult times and poverty. I know all about poverty. That’s why maybe, in my role today, I feel I can empathise with people who are looking for legal aid, because, as people say – and it may sounds trite– but poverty is not just about access to money. It’s got to do with access to education and access to opportunity.

“Access to justice is a very important part of our society, and sometimes we take it for granted. That’s why I was surprised and delighted to get this role. I feel that it’s very important that we keep emphasising the fact that access to the courts for people of modest means is a critical part of our democracy.”

While his father Liam and mother Noreen (both deceased) were educated only as far as primary level, “they were very interested in reading, very interested in educating their children, and there were always books around the house. We were alwaysbrought to the library. Their main aim was that we would be educated and get on in life – and they gave us that space and opportunity. Going to college and making the most of the opportunity was important to me as well.”

“If you had asked me then would I end up chairing the Legal Aid Board I would probably have laughed at the idea. And if you’d asked me the same question about five months ago, I’d have laughedas well, but here I am!”

Taking on the mantle

So how did he come to taking on the mantle of chairman of the Legal Aid Board?

“I sat on the previous Legal Aid Board. I wasappointed in 2011 and served on that Board until October 2016.” Appointed by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Board members serve a statutory five-year term, which may be renewed on re-application.

“Coming to the end of that term, I was slightly, I wouldn’t say reluctant to re-apply, but I thought about it for a while, because I’d given the Boardfive years. The one thing that encouraged me was the fact that it can be something of a ‘big bang’ when the Board leaves. I felt it would help if the new Board had a number of existing members sitting again – to preserve the ‘corporate memory’. On that basis, I reapplied. Part of the application form features a question about whether you would be willing to serve as Chairman. I ticked that box, but I must say I was surprised when I was asked.” Philip was the only member of the former Board to be re-appointed.

His role as non-executive chairman is to run the statutory Board of 12 ordinary members, which meets once a month. He also oversees the work of Chief Executive John McDaid and his management team. “John is a very capable individual, running a good organisation,” says Philip. “He has 480 staff in 50 offices around the country, of which 33 are full-time offices. It’s a big operation, with a large budget of €40 million, and John runs that very well.”

The Legal Aid Board is also due to take over the administration of the State’s criminal legal aid schemes – a €60 million operation that is treated separately from its civil legal aid and mediation services.

“I see my function as one of running the Board effectively, overseeing the operation of the organisation efficiently, and making sure we’re getting value for money. Because I come from a private-practice background, I’m conscious of the fact that there are budgets and targets that have to be achieved – and then to make sure that we give the best service possible to the person in need of legal aid.”

Is he happy with the service that the Legal Aid Board is providing?

“We have improved efficiencies in terms of the throughput of cases. Less than three years ago, the waiting list was over 5,000 people – it’s now just over 2,000. So we are making significant progress. You’re never not going to have a waiting list, but you would like to get to a point where you have a reasonable number on that list – and a reasonable waiting time in terms of them obtaining professional legal advice.

“We do, of course, have systems in place to deal with emergency cases, such as domestic violence cases or childcare matters. So the cases where people are waiting on a service are oftentimes not critical, but perhaps no less urgent.”

The biggest call on the Board’s civil-aid budget are family law cases, where approximately 70% of the €40 million budget is spent. A significant amount is allocated to childcare cases, particularly in Dublin and Cork.

The Legal Aid Board’s service is ‘broad brush’. “There are some exclusions, such as defamation. But other than that, if you come to the Board with a case and you can prove that you qualify under the terms of financial eligibility and that you satisfy the merits test – in other words that it’s a case that could be taken by a modestly funded individual on a private basis – then you will get your legal-aid certificate.”

What are his objectives over the next five years?

“The first thing on my agenda is to look at the eligibility levels to make sure that they’re adequate – to make sure that people of modest means obtain adequate legal services from the Board. It’s a bit of what I call ‘all-duck-no-dinner’ at the moment. If you’ve over €18,000 disposable income, you won’t qualify for legal aid, and sometimes you can have tough cases where applicants are perhaps a couple of hundred euro over that limit, and they don’t qualify.

“We need to look at a more graduated system, whereby you don’t fall off the cliff just as soon as you’re €5 over the limit. There’s also an argument for ‘consumer-price-indexing’ the eligibility levels, so that they keep pace with inflation on an ongoing basis. I should add, however, that the Board doesn’t control its budget. The Board can only make recommendations to the Minister, and it’s up to the Minister thereafter whether those recommendations are approved.”

Centres of excellence

What’s crying out for attention?

“The Legal Aid Board has 33 full-time offices around the country, which has its benefits and disadvantages. On the one hand, you’re bringing the service close to the people who need it, but on the other, you might end up with some smaller offices unable to meet specific requirements.

“You could have bigger offices in the main population centres and still run part-time offices, so that you’re continuing to bring the service to the public. This can happen by way of evolution, specifically where leases are coming up for renewal. For instance, if there’s a family law office with a lease coming up and there’s a mediation office down the road, we’ll look for a building that will accommodate both together. We’re doing that now in order to achieve synergy in our operations and to offer alternative dispute resolutions such as mediation.

“Already the Legal Aid Board has a specialised personal injury office in Dublin, a specialised medical negligence office, a specialised childcare office. If something comes across your desk like a medical negligence case, you’re going to find it very difficult to deal with it if you just haven’t got the expertise. So I would see some advantages in more larger law centres with a better spread of expertise.

“At the end of the day, I would prefer people to get a service that’s properly and adequately resourced; than have one that’s not.It’s all about getting that balance right. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. The Legal Aid Board is  a very good organisation and is doing great work.

“I have been very impressed with the professionalism of the staff I have met, in how they approach their work and their commitment to access to justice. At the end of the day, it’s getting the quality of the service right, as distinct from the throughput. My focus is to ensure that people get access to justice, that they get the right advice, and at the right time.”

 

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