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At your service

At your service
Joan Crawford ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

Legal Aid Board’s Joan Crawford talks to the Gazette

Solicitor Joan Crawford, who now leads the Legal Aid Board, says that the work has thoroughly hooked her – though, as she reveals to Mary Hallissey, she never intended to remain so long in the same organisation.

The fulfilment that comes from truly helping people at a difficult time in their lives is clearly immensely satisfying, since Joan Crawford has now spent 27 years at the Legal Aid Board.

The new board’s new head has worked as a solicitor, managing solicitor, regional law-centre manager and, subsequently, chief executive – a role the assumed in April.

Challenges for the Legal Aid Board include implementing training to deal with the heavyweight changes that come with the enactment of the Assisted Decision-Making Capacity Act this year and the knock-on effects on up to 3,000 former wards of court.

At your service

At your service

The legislation will also affect people in nursing homes, or anybody who has any crucial decision to make, where functional capacity is a concern, Joan explains. Previously, capacity was determined by a medical report.

The board will assist in assessing whether the client understands the decision to be made, and it will also have a role in future health directives under the legislation.

Significant challenge

Crawford describes the substantial increase in international-protection applicants, which has hugely increased the Legal Aid Board’s workload, as a significant challenge.

“It started to build up in November 2021 and then it gathered pace in 2022, but we became absolutely inundated with applicants since last May, with a 500% increase in applications,” she says.

“We’ve been hectically busy for that reason,” she says. “To be able to deal with that work, we’ve had to increase resources very, very quickly, because we must give people the earliest possible legal advice, before they fill in the international-protection application.”

There are specialist Legal Aid Board units for this work in Dublin, Cork, and Galway. While every international-protection applicant can come to the board, it is aware (through IPO statistics) of a cohort that don’t apply.

“In cooperation with the International Protection Office, we are looking at putting staff in Timberlay House [Lower Mount Street, Dublin 2], which is where they first apply, to hopefully bridge that gap,” Joan says.

“We will be there when they go in to apply for protection. We will have staff there that can give them advice and information in respect of what services the Legal Aid Board can provide for them, and how they can apply for it. We will help them with that process from the very beginning.”

The International Protection Appeals Tribunal is the only tribunal the Legal Aid Board can appear before, as it’s precluded from matters before the Residential Tenancies Board or the Social Welfare Tribunal, for instance.

There may be some recommendations for changes to this, as well as in respect of financial eligibility, because of the civil-legal-aid review.

Free service

Crawford has also served on the implementation committee for the new Family Justice Strategy.

“The Family Courts Bill, and the change in the way that family law will be delivered in the courts around the country, together with the civil legal aid reviews, make this a very positive time to be taking over this role,” she says.

“We also have a terrific mediation service, which is free – and that’s something that not many people are aware of. It’s a free service, and we have probably the most experienced mediators in the country working for us. Mediation is exceptionally important and, again, we are promoting it under the Family Justice Strategy.”

Mediation centres are often co-located with Legal Aid Board law centres. The board’s workload shoots up during a recession, due to unemployment and the stress that this brings to relationships.

There are both financial eligibility and merit tests applied before the Legal Aid Board takes on a case, with a cut-off of disposable income below €18,000 net annually, and disposable capital above €100,000. There are also allowances for bills, loans and childcare included in the sums.

And “we don’t take the family home into consideration in the capital contribution,” Joan says.

Some matters are not charged for at all, such as child-abduction cases and mortgage-arrears cases under the ‘Abhaile’ scheme.

Frivolous cases

“We don’t take frivolous cases, as we are funded by the taxpayer, and we have to be very careful about that,” Joan says.

The decision to take a case or not is made by an assessing solicitor, with a right of review and appeal to an appeals committee.

“Our office in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, which issues legal-aid certs, would seldom disagree with that decision. They might review it or ask for more detail.”

While the Legal Aid Board was decentralised to Co Kerry in the late 1990s, the organisation still runs two offices, with a large premises in Dublin 7.

“The whole operation didn’t go, because it was necessary to keep some support functions here in Dublin. Most of our head-office staff do work in Caherciveen, but that’s our support staff – it’s not our frontline staff. We have support staff in this building as well and, for the first time ever, we have 550 staff,” she adds.

Of this number, 98 are solicitors, on varying pay scales, as well as many legal clerks, who do case-preparation work.

The recent staff increases are driven by the growth in international-protection applications as well as new legislation.

Incoming matters are assessed on a teamwork basis, with clerical staff assisting the deciding solicitor to progress the file.

“It empowers the staff, who have a lot of ability and a lot of knowledge – we have people in the organisation for 30 years who have a huge amount of expertise,” Joan explains.

Gap in legal services

The Legal Aid Board also recently identified a gap in legal services for Travellers and has set up a specialist unit to address it, which will shortly move to the Ballymun office.

“We really were delighted with the response. We’ve had a huge amount of interaction with the different Traveller groups around the country, and we’ve upped our knowledge and communication in respect of the availability of that service.”

Recruiting staff is a serious challenge, given the pay scales to which the board must adhere and the accommodation difficulties that staff themselves face.

Some of the workload has been pushed out to Legal Aid Board offices around the country, but much remains Dublin-based, particularly child-law matters.

The board has 34 full-time and three part-time centres, with specialised child-care units for children being taken into care. “We act for the parents, and that’s exceptionally busy work. It’s never without challenges and it’s always busy. It’s ongoing – 12 months of the year.”

“The Legal Aid Board is a dispersed organisation, and that has its own challenges,” Joan says. “We have regular staff engagements.”

She describes visiting regional law centres as a major, albeit pleasant, part of her job: “It also helps me understand what’s going on for the staff.”

Joan feels very conscious of the toll that child-care legal work takes on staff, especially where sexual abuse is involved: “I’m conscious that we have a lot of young staff coming in, and I want to give them the tools to cope.

“The Legal Aid Board is a good organisation – it’s got a very committed and good staff doing really difficult work, and they all work very hard. They’re very committed to the public service, which I think is important,” she says.

“I want the public to know we are a national organisation – though, when all is said and done, we are local. We are your local law centre, and we want you to know how we can help you, and that you should come to us,” Joan says.

She encourages lawyers to consider moving to the Legal Aid Board, because the work really makes a difference to people’s lives. The board offers great career flexibility, she stresses, as well as fulfilling work.

Alive, alive-oh!

Joan has spent almost her entire working life in Dublin, and now lives close to where she was brought up in Terenure.

She loved debating in school and always knew she wanted to be a solicitor – and had a strong example of community and charitable work from her parents.

She plunged straight into legal work after school, learning a massive amount on a summer job at Beatty Healy Solicitors in the city centre and describing whizzing around town on a motorbike doing legal errands and falling in love with the work:

“I was very lucky in that I was given a lot of responsibility. I learned all about probate,” she recalls.

Joan felt torn about leaving her job to become a full-time law student and ultimately opted for night classes at the then Dublin Institute of Technology’s Rathmines College of Commerce.

“A lot of people on that course are now either senior people in large firms, judges, or county registrars. They did well because I think we just got a very good grounding.”

Eventually Joan moved on to do her articles as an apprentice at Blackhall Place. She has worked full-time in the law for all her career since leaving school, while also being a mother to six children.

They were born in a nine-year span, with the youngest now 31, and there are also several grandchildren in the family: “It wasn’t easy, but we’re very lucky at the end of the day. Because they were so close in age, they kind of brought each other up.”

Keeping the door open

The door is never closed to career progress, she notes, and the trials and tribulations of life engender empathy for the misfortunes of others.

She acknowledges that she has had great help and support, and her message to young mothers is that, while things may be difficult for a while, ultimately chances will come to further one’s career, once the children are grown up.

Joan has added numerous qualifications to her CV along the way, including a master’s in management, as well as qualifications in child-care law and European law.

She enjoys standing up in court and advocating for people leading very difficult lives, even if the law can’t fix everything: “I like the sense of service and the difference we can make,” she says. “And, in general, people are honestly very grateful and very appreciative of the service that the Legal Aid Board gives.”

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