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Poor see law as ‘a weapon used against them’
Gary Lee Pic: Cian Redmond

04 Oct 2021 / justice Print

The poor see the law as ‘a weapon used against them’

The volume of unmet legal needs in Ireland is unknown, Eilis Barry of FLAC told the Law Society-sponsored Access to Justice conference on Saturday (2 October).

“Historically, legal services and the legal education sectors have placed very little emphasis on the importance of an evidence-based approach to the design and delivery of services,” Barry said. 

She added that there was something “deeply uncomfortable” about having a state-of-the-art commercial court, in comparative luxury, compared with the completely overstretched family-law and District Courts.

“Research is vital to help us understand where our legal needs are,“ she added.

Commonly experienced legal problems can coalesce into clusters, Barry continued, with one problem snowballing into another.


“For many people living in disadvantage, their legal problems are multiple, inter-connected, and messy,” she said.

“People living with disadvantage are constantly involved with the law, in its most intrusive form,” she added.

FLAC has always maintained that access to justice is a continuum of issues, and includes information, legal advice, advocacy, access to the courts and to effective remedies, and fair and just laws, she said.


Broadening accessibility to legal information and advice should be a 'number-one' priority, especially in family and employment law, the FLAC chief executive said.

However, financial limits to legal aid, and a strict means test, implies that those with legal problems often have no hope of engaging a solicitor.

Senior counsel Turlough O’Donnell told the conference that some system users were unaware that there were legal solutions to their problems.

“They don’t actually, in my view, believe that they have rights; that’s how bad it is,” he said. 

“A middle-class person finds it very easy to talk to a lawyer, and has an understanding of the rights the law will provide."

“Someone in dire need doesn’t have that confidence,” he said.

The Bar Council’s pro-bono Voluntary Assistance Scheme, established in 2004, attempts to tackle that issue, but also has an enduring and ongoing conversation with the voluntary sector about how to access courts, and the best means of advocating a case.

“It’s our effort to converse with people who find it very difficult to converse with lawyers," the barrister said.

Gary Lee (managing solicitor at Ballymun Community Law Centre) said that, for many years, Ballymun in Dublin had no solicitor at all, for a population of 22,000 people.

“That’s a serious barrier to accessing the courts,” he said.

The Ballymun centre provides quality legal advice in areas not covered by the civil legal-aid scheme, such as housing, social welfare, and health matters.

Employment-law queries

“Since the pandemic started, we’ve got an awful lot of employment-law related queries as well,” Lee noted.

Some 70% of the centre’s clients have physical, sensory, or mental-health difficulty, or may have multiple disabilities, and a substantial number live below the poverty line, he added.

Some clients have been removed from the social-welfare housing waiting list while being treated in hospital, Lee said.

Rather than viewing the law as a weapon they can use, it’s seen as a weapon being used against his clients, he continued.

“We need to get the message out that the law can be a friend that you can trust,” the solicitor said.

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