The Legal Aid Board experienced a 20% drop in demand at its network of law centres last year compared with 2019, according to its annual report.
Chief executive John McDaid said that while the falls generally tracked whatever COVID-19 restrictions were in place, travel restrictions led to the numbers applying for international protection dropping by more than 50%.
The board is responsible for the provision of legal aid and advice to people of limited means under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The board is also runs the State-funded Family Mediation Service.
Shorter waiting list
The report shows that 1,588 people were waiting for legal services at the end of 2020 – down by more than 400 from 12 months earlier.
The chief executive welcomed the drop in demand, but noted that it might be “a delayed demand”, rather than a falling-off in the need for the board’s services.
The body was able to keep its law centres open during the pandemic, and McDaid said that, as far as he was aware, no legally aided person was left without legal representation for an urgent matter.
Overall, there were 18,522 applications for the board's services in 2020, of which just over 13,000 were for civil legal aid. Family-law cases accounted for more than two-thirds of civil legal-aid cases last year.
Fewer family-mediation cases
Just over 3,000 people applied for family mediation services, but the board processed fewer new cases due to pandemic restrictions.
“The experience was that mediation often works best when the parties are in a room with a mediator, and for significant periods during 2020 this was not possible,” said McDaid.
He pointed out, however, that the telephone and video-conferencing models developed by the board meant that mediators could help clients regardless of their physical location.
The board also runs the Abhaile scheme that was put in place in 2016 to help people in danger of losing their homes.
The annual report notes a continuing fall in demand for consultations with solicitors under the scheme, but an increase in the take-up of legal-aid services to challenge creditors’ refusals to approve personal insolvency arrangements.
Writing in the report, the chair of the board, Philip O’Leary (pictured), said that that the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid and advice had not been substantially changed since 2006.
“There is no discretion or capacity to provide services to persons who may be marginally outside the financial limits.” he said, adding that the board had raised the issue with the Department of Justice, and would welcome “early progress”.
Welcoming the review of the civil legal-aid scheme, he said he was confident that it would result in an improved system.