The Chief Executive of FLAC — the body which campaigns for improved access to justice, says that COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequalities and barriers to justice in Irish society.
Speaking as the group launched its annual report for 2020, Eilis Barry (small picture) called for these issues to be “comprehensively addressed” in the upcoming reviews of the civil legal-aid scheme and Ireland’s equality legislation.
FLAC said that the pandemic had highlighted gaps in the existing legal-aid system, and had created an increased need for individuals and organisations to access justice. The group said that it was not able to meet the huge demand for its services last year.
Its telephone information line received almost 12,500 calls, while almost 5,000 people received basic legal advice from around 550 volunteer lawyers at free legal-advice clinics that were conducted remotely during COVID restrictions.
FLAC says the main queries related to family law and employment law.
Ms Barry said that it was “a matter of ongoing concern” that there was no legal aid available in employment cases – an area in which queries to FLAC increased by almost 40%.
The organisation said that COVID-19 restrictions had led to an increase in family-law queries, as pandemic measures often exacerbated already-difficult family situations.
Child access difficulties
More than a quarter of family-law queries related to children, with many of these from parents facing difficulties in gaining access, and not knowing where to turn to seek information and advice.
“It was particularly concerning for FLAC to receive calls from people who were the subject of ongoing and exacerbated domestic violence, and felt in genuine fear for their safety,” the group said, adding that this was often due to financial and alcohol stresses, as well as people living in close confines due to a sudden loss of employment arising from the pandemic.
“This is particularly concerning in light of recent revelations that domestic violence victims who made emergency calls for help did not receive the standard of service from gardaí that they required, and to which they were entitled,” FLAC said.
‘Deep societal prejudice’
During the year, the group launched its legal service for Travellers. Sinéad Lucey, FLAC’s managing solicitor, said that its work had been dominated by discrimination and housing issues.
She warned, however, that litigation alone could not resolve the “deep societal prejudice and structural discrimination” faced by groups, such as Roma and Travellers.
Speaking ahead of the report’s launch, Chief Justice Frank Clarke (pictured) said: “In a year in which the onset of the pandemic brought with it challenges which none of us could have foreseen, never was the work of FLAC so important.”