Chief Justice Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell (pictured) has said that legal aid in Ireland is available only on restricted grounds, subject to unrealistic means-test thresholds, and provided by an under-resourced and over-stretched organisation.
He was speaking at the launch of a report on a conference held earlier this year by the Chief Justice’s Working Group on Access to Justice.
The report, which concentrates on the issue if civil legal aid, was presented to the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee at the offices of the Legal Aid Board in Dublin this morning (12 July).
The Chief Justice compared the availability of legal aid in Ireland today to how people dealt with health problems before the arrival of widespread entitlement to healthcare and the associated infrastructure.
“People receive assistance from voluntary groups, from some admirable charities, and from the long tradition of goodwill within the professions, but many others are sometimes driven to resort to self-help, or fall into the clutches of those outside the legal professions offering deceptively cheap and simple solutions, or simply suffer in silence,” he stated.
While the Chief Justice stressed that he was not suggesting that there should be a simple equivalence, he pointed out that the current health budget was around €23.4 billion, while the budget for legal aid was around €50 million.
He said that the challenge must be to improve every aspect of the system of provision of legal advice and assistance, adding that this was “a multi-factorial problem, with no simple or easy solution”.
The report is aimed at assisting the work of the Civil Legal Aid Review Group, chaired by former chief justice Mr Justice Frank Clarke, which is the first review of the legal-aid scheme in its 40-year history.
The Chief Executive of the Legal Aid Board, Joan Crawford, said that “essential maintenance” was required for the administration of justice through the civil legal-aid scheme.
She added, however, that it should not be assumed that the pace of reform was a matter in the sole control of administrators or even legislators.
Crawford quoted Mr Justice John McMenamin, who said in the report that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that there was an immediate fix to access-to-justice issues.
She also called for greater acknowledgement of the work of lawyers who were passionate about providing help to those in need.
Crawford said that the board would work closely with all those with an interest in the services it provided, and would make the most of the opportunity presented by the Family Justice Strategy to bring about a more streamlined and user-friendly system that placed children and the family at its centre.
At today’s event, the Chief Justice also paid tribute to Attracta O’Regan, the Law Society representative on the first Access to Justice Working Group, who died recently.
He described her contribution as “always constructive, committed, positive, low-key and effective”, adding that she would be sorely missed.