Despite challenges ahead, 40 years of access to legal aid has helped remove barriers to justice for all our citizens, writes Philip O’Leary.

When then justice minister Gerry Collins appointed the first Legal Aid Board on December 21, 1979, he stressed the importance of the Scheme of Civil Legal Aid and Advice as an instrument by which the concept of equality before the law could be brought substantially nearer to realisation in practice.

Equality may always remain an aspiration rather than a reality, however the right to equality should be responsive to those who are disadvantaged, demeaned, excluded, or ignored.

Irish society has undergone clear and defined changes in the past four decades. There has been an extensive change in Irish social thinking, values, and the expectations of citizens and other residents.

The traditional definition of marriage and the family has changed.

The 1970s had been a decade of transition which witnessed much debate about traditional Ireland adapting to modern times in relation to the economy, politics, and the status of women.

Since 1979 there have been amendments to the Constitution concerning social justice issues such as abortion, adoption, children, same-sex marriage, divorce, the death penalty, and the voting rights of both immigrants and migrants.

The board, through enhancing participation and giving voice to citizens and others seeking to assert their rights, has played an active part as one component of a broader framework in assisting in modifying laws, policies, and practices to better achieve substantive equality.

In the foreword to the first annual report of the Legal Aid Board in 1980, chairperson Vincent Landy, SC, pointed out that the growth of legal aid throughout the world during the 20th century reflected an acceptance of the fact that access to justice was a basic human right and acceptance also of the fact that State intervention was necessary to secure that right.

He concluded that the introduction of the Scheme of Civil Legal Aid and Advice at the end of 1979 was a significant step towards the aim of securing justice for all in Irish society.

The 40th anniversary is a moment to pause and reflect on the degree to which that aim has been achieved.

I’m conscious that there are legal issues faced by some where there may be legal or practical barriers to them getting access to legal aid services.

I will be the first to acknowledge that the civil legal aid system is not without its challenges.

Getting timely legal advice or timely access to the court when this is needed are important rights.

While more than 50% of persons seeking civil legal aid services will get an immediate or near immediate service, there are waiting times for others, which is an issue that the board, management and I are always anxious to try and pro-actively address.

I’m aware of concerns expressed by NGOs in relation to the legal supports available to persons at risk of losing their homes and also to categories of people at risk of marginalisation or exploitation, for example, the elderly.

I’m aware that the basic financial eligibility criteria for legal aid have not been changed since 2006 and I have publicly called for this to be reviewed.

Resourcing is inevitably an issue and it is the case that the extent or breadth of a legal aid service is clearly impacted and to a significant extent determined by the level of resources that are available.

I’m very aware of the call on the part of the Oireachtas joint committee on justice and equality, when reporting on the family justice system, for a full review of the legal aid system and I endorse this call and indeed the content and recommendations in the committee’s report generally.

It is correct that we focus on the challenges but also important that we acknowledge the provision of legal advice and legal representation that has been given to often vulnerable persons in difficult situations on a day in day out basis over the last 40 years and that has allowed those persons to understand their rights and, where necessary to vindicate them through a court, mediation or other process.

The availability of a properly funded legal aid system is a litmus test of our democracy and we must constantly strive to strike the right balance between those who have and those who need.

Philip O’Leary, chairperson Legal Aid Board.

Leave a reply