Advice caller faced £20,000 costs in family law case because he narrowly failed means test
THERE HAS BEEN an increase in the number of people seeking legal advice because they cannot afford representation in civil cases or are just above state legal aid thresholds, according to a new report from the Centers free legal advice (FLAC).
FLAC, a non-profit organization that provides volunteer assistance through a network of counseling centres, received 13,147 calls to its information and referral hotline last year – the number of calls the highest since 2015.
The organization’s annual report, to be launched later today, highlights “the enormous stress some individuals and families are under in 2021”.
Almost 30% of all queries to the hotline related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence, and custody and maintenance issues.
FLAC chief executive Eilis Barry said some callers were stressed because they weren’t eligible for legal aid and many narrowly missed the means test.
In one case, an appellant exceeded the legal aid means test by €500 and incurred legal costs in a contested family law case of more than €20,000.
Barry said many appellants try to navigate the court system on their own, and FLAC has nowhere to refer lay litigants who are “completely intimidated by court forms and procedures.”
“We also heard of callers contacting FLAC in situations where they had been the subject of legal action but were facing several months of delays in being approved for legal aid,” she said.
FLAC and 45 other NGOs launched a campaign last year to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized individuals, families and communities can access civil legal aid. The Minister of Justice has undertaken to review this system and a Civil Legal Aid Review Group has been set up.
Barry said it’s concerning that FLAC has nowhere to refer callers seeking advice or representation in employment law cases, as there is no legal aid for grievances before the Workplace Relations Commission.
Employment law queries were the second highest area of queries in 2021.
“It’s important to note that these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, as FLAC cannot answer every call placed on our phone line,” Barry said.
“We are concerned that many more people will try and fail to get through, despite our increased staff and resources on the phone line. There must be a better way to provide services that enable access to justice.
Last year, FLAC also noted a steady increase in queries relating to housing matters, which increased by more than 9% compared to 2020. FLAC handles a number of public interest cases each year, primarily representing people experiencing poverty, disadvantage and exclusion, and housing remains one of the most widespread areas of law.
The report highlights, in particular, FLAC’s work on traveler accommodation matters as 37 of the 88 cases opened in 2021 were opened on behalf of Travelers Legal Service (TLS) clients.
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The TLS received 85 new queries in 2021, most of which related to housing and accommodation issues.
This department has acted in three sets of judicial review proceedings relating to housing issues, two of which have ruled in favor of FLAC clients. This included procedures regarding a local authority’s non-compliance with its own traveler accommodation scheme.
The municipality’s decision not to build a halting area which was part of this program was later reversed.
The TLS also defended a lawsuit brought by a semi-state agency that sought to remove a Traveler woman and her children from a drop-off site. This case settled before trial when the client was offered and accepted alternative accommodation.
Sinéad Lucey, FLAC’s Chief Counsel, said litigation brought by FLAC continues “to illustrate the specific and acute legal needs of marginalized individuals and communities living in poverty and disadvantage, particularly in areas such as access to housing, discrimination and social protection”.
“Even access to tribunals such as the WRC, which deals with discrimination cases at first instance and which is supposed to be accessible to people without representation, is impossible for many without access to legal advice and representation,” said she declared.
“The harsh reality is that FLAC cannot provide representation beyond a very limited number of cases.
“However, services such as the Travelers Legal Service provide a model for how these communities’ right to access to justice can be asserted through the provision of dedicated legal services with community involvement.”