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Community law
Rose Wall and Chief Justice Frank Clarke at the launch of the Strategic Plan 2019-2023

13 Nov 2020 / Community law Print

Civil legal aid at critical juncture

Ireland is at a critical juncture, and it is time to recognise the role that access to justice can play in protecting and empowering vulnerable groups.

Ireland’s first independent community law centre opened its doors in Coolock 45 years ago. Today, Community Law & Mediation (CLM) provides free legal advice, advocacy, mediation and education services to more than 3,000 people annually, many of whom are vulnerable and are dealing with the effects of inherited poverty and inequality.

Set up in 1975 and modelled on the American neighbourhood law centre, the purpose of Coolock Community Law Centre, as CLM was originally known, was not only to cater for the legal needs of the local community, but also to serve as a blueprint for how legal aid could be delivered across the country.

Led by solicitor and community activist Dave Ellis, and later by Colin Daly (now President of the District Court), it played a fundamental role in the development of the community law movement in Ireland.

On behalf of the community

At a time of recession and high unemployment, the law centre survived many funding crises to campaign on behalf of the community on issues such as employment rights, access to social welfare, divorce, the position of lone parents, domestic violence, and homelessness.

It represented families of the Stardust victims and took important test cases in the area of social welfare, such as McConnell vs the Eastern Health Board (1981) and State (Hoolahan) v Minister for Social Welfare (1986).

It also successfully challenged the constitutionality of the law under which a person could be sent to prison over failure to pay a debt in McCann v Judges of Monaghan District Court & Others (2009).

Later, the law centre expanded both its catchment area – to Dublin North Central and North East electoral constituencies – and its services, to include mediation and conflict coaching.

A second law centre opened its doors in Limerick city in 2013, following engagement with community representatives and activists there, which provides legal advice and advocacy services in the communities identified for regeneration and other areas experiencing disadvantage in Limerick.

Social justice

This commitment to social justice and social inclusion continues to inspire Community Law & Mediation`s work today. Under its Strategic Plan 2019-2023, the community that CLM serves now includes anyone who, because of economic, social or other disadvantage, is unable to otherwise access the services CLM provides.

Its work is centred on empowering people to vindicate their rights, be it through legal advice and advocacy, mediation, ‘know your rights’ talks, or legal training courses.

Law reform work continues, with recent initiatives focusing on access to civil legal aid, employment and equality rights, access to education, access to housing and Traveller accommodation, access to justice for people with intellectual disabilities, and gender equality.

Barriers still exist

Unfortunately, many of the barriers that deterred people from asserting their rights and from accessing legal services in 1975 continue to exist today.

While the Civil Legal Aid Scheme, introduced in 1979, attempted to address issues relating to cost, it is too limited in scope and does not cover certain areas of law, including employment and equality complaints before the Workplace Relations Commission or appeals before the Social Welfare Appeals Office.

In addition, the existing means test to qualify for legal aid is overly strict and out of touch with the reality of the cost of living, with the result that many who cannot afford the services of a private solicitor do not qualify for legal aid.

Vital role

CLM and its colleagues in the other independent law centres play a vital role in meeting the needs of vulnerable people who are not catered for under the Civil Legal Aid Scheme. They also perform important public information, education, and law reform functions that are not currently provided for by the State.

One woman who contacted Community Law & Mediation’s legal service with an employment issue described it as a ‘lifebuoy’, as she had given up hope of getting any help or support elsewhere.

None of this could be achieved without the support of a dedicated group of legal and mediation volunteers, who generously commit their time to giving advice in the legal advice clinics or resolving family or community disputes through mediation. In fact, volunteers form the very backbone of Community Law & Mediation.

More to do

So what about the next 45 years?

Firstly, the onset of the COVID pandemic and its impact on families, homes and jobs has created an even greater urgency around the need for comprehensive and timely access to justice.

Demand for CLM’s services has never been greater, and requests for legal advice in relation to employment have more than doubled as people face the prospect of losing their jobs. There has also been a substantial increase in demand for advice on housing and family issues.

At a minimum, the means test to qualify for legal aid must be made more inclusive, and the statutory limitations of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme must be removed, so that people can access legal aid in all areas of law during this time.

In this context, reports of a commitment by Justice Minister Helen McEntee to review the Civil Legal Aid Scheme and the eligibility criteria are very welcome.

Secondly, as climate change accelerates and the urgent actions required to mitigate it are implemented, it will be vital to ensure that the groups we work with are not disproportionately affected. Indeed, we have already seen stark disparities and inequalities in how vulnerable groups have experienced the pandemic.

CLM’s new Centre for Environmental Justice will seek to engage communities experiencing poverty, social exclusion, or inequality and provide them with legal information, advice, advocacy support and representation in the area of environmental justice. It is planned to officially launch the new centre in January 2021.

Forty-five years on, Ireland is at a critical juncture as it deals with the two defining issues of our time. It is time to recognise the role that access to justice can play in protecting and empowering vulnerable groups.

Rose Wall
Rose Wall is CEO of Community Law & Mediation and is a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights and Equality Committee