The chair of the Legal Aid Board has said the impact of COVID-19 is likely to lead to a significant ‘delayed’ demand for its services.
The board is a statutory, independent body which provides civil legal aid and advice under the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 through solicitors at a network of law centres. It also provides a family mediation service.
Difficult family situations
Writing in its 2019 annual report, Philip O’Leary (pictured) says many people experiencing difficult family situations, or financial problems brought on or exacerbated by the crisis, will need legal advice and representation in increasing numbers as pandemic restrictions unwind.
Mr O’Leary described as “disappointing” an increase in the number of people waiting for legal services — from 1,754 at the end of 2018 to 2,019 at the end of last year. The number had been falling over the previous five or six years, according to the board.
“I am able to report that the numbers waiting for a first appointment have reduced very significantly since the end of 2019 though I am cautious in terms of the impact of the COVID-19 restrictions and the extent to which it may be delaying a demand for the board’s services,” Mr O’Leary said.
He added that the board was “reflecting carefully” on how it could meet any surge in demand that may arise as a result of the pandemic.
The Legal Aid Board had been calling for movement on legislation for family courts, and welcomed last week's Government approval to draft a bill on the issue.
Mr O’Leary also said the board was engaging with the Department of Justice and Equality on the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid and advice, pointing out that these had not been substantially changed since 2006.
He said there was currently no discretion or capacity to provide services to people who may be marginally outside the financial limits. He cited the example of HAP support for housing, which can bring some people above the financial eligibility threshold.
The annual report shows that in 2019 there were 17,997 new applications to law centres, a fall of just under 1.5% from 2018. Almost 80% of these applications were linked to a family problem.
The numbers seeking services in relation to international protection matters rose sharply from 2,079 in 2018 to 2,539.