A ‘vicious cycle’ of low pay and overwork is undermining morale at the Legal Aid Board, family-law solicitor Keith Walsh SC has said.
The current rate of payment bears no resemblance to the market rate for solicitors, he commented.
Speaking at the Chief Justice’s Access to Justice Conference at Dublin Castle (24 February), the solicitor said that remuneration for civil legal aid through family-law centres is completely non-economical for solicitors.
Chief Justice’s access to justice working group at the conference: John Lunney (Law Society nominee), Joseph O’Sullivan BL (Bar of Ireland nominee), Chief Justice Donal O'Donnell, Eilis Barry (FLAC), Mr Justice John MacMenamin (retired Judge of Supreme Court), John McDaid (Legal Aid Board)
Significant difficulty for litigants
This has led to a flight of solicitors from the Legal Aid Board panel and caused a significant difficulty for litigants in accessing legal services.
The Legal Aid Board was compelled by the public-pay policy to advertise for new solicitors on the first point of the applicable pay scale – and in a manner and at a remuneration level distinct from other public bodies that employ solicitors, he added.
Walsh pointed to the resultant difficulties in recruiting solicitors to do this work.
“As we emerge from the pandemic and demand for the board’s services return to pre-pandemic levels, it is of the utmost importance that recruitment is promoted and facilitated as, otherwise, the resultant challenges will lead to longer waiting times for those requiring legal aid to access justice,” Walsh told the attendees.
Serious solicitor shortage
The Legal Aid Board remains greatly dependent upon its private practitioner panels in the provision of services, especially at District Court level, he added, but there remains a very serious shortage of available solicitors who will accept the reduced payment.
A vicious circle has been created where the lack of staff means that those who remain are overworked, leading to a general reduction in morale, he said.
Even more damaging to the fabric of the legal-aid scheme was the greatly increased workload facing the District Family Court in all cases involving children, because of recent changes, including voice-of-the-child reports.
Another serious issue is the number of solicitors who remain on the panel but who do not accept cases, as they are too busy with other work or do not consider it a viable prospect, Keith Walsh said.
Delays only make things worse for applicants as problems become more entrenched and less likely to resolve, leading to further litigation, he added.
It is “almost unbelievable” that the new Family Courts Bill proposes to move all divorce and judicial-separation cases of less than €1 million – which is most cases – from the Circuit Family Court to the District Family Court, the senior counsel observed.
At the conference, Law Society President Maura Derivan commended the Civil Legal Aid Group and the Minister for Justice for seeking consultation to review the Civil Legal Aid Scheme for the first time in its forty-year history.
She also outlined some of the Law Society’s core recommendations to improve the scheme.