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‘Without rule of law…we don’t have anything’
FLAC council members David Fannelly, Peter Ward, Julie Herlihy, Don Crewe and Joanne Hyde Pic: Mark Stedman

12 Nov 2019 / justice Print

‘Without the rule of law, we don’t have anything’

President Michael D Higgins said that a spirit of ‘generous humanity and necessary inclusiveness’ had led to the foundation of Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) fifty years ago, its chief executive Eilis Barry told an audience gathered to celebrate on Friday night at the Radisson Hotel in Dublin 8.

She quoted the President’s opinion that the provision of a free legal advice service was a profoundly ethical act and a key step on the road to Ireland becoming a proper Republic.

Ownership

Eilis Barry said that those involved with FLAC over the years feel a kind of ownership of the organisation, long after they stop playing a formal role.

That former volunteers still want to be associated with FLAC was evidenced by the massive turnout to celebrate its golden anniversary, with many people travelling from overseas to attend.

Eilis Barry said that while pro bono work is now an established part of corporate social responsibility, FLAC dealt with 25,164 requests for legal information in 2018, and 13,678 individuals received basic legal advice from volunteer lawyers at clinics in 71 locations.

Support

When FLAC started in 1969 it was as an independent law centre. There are now nine such centres in Ireland.  Eilis Barry thanked all those in attendance for their incredible support over the years.

Speaker Karen Banks said that in doing good for other people, you do good for yourself. She said that in the early days, FLAC volunteers never thought about insurance risks “because we were innocent and naïve”.

Often, what FLAC clients needed was someone to listen sympathetically, she said.

“In those days we were surviving on a meagre grant from the Department of Justice … and they thought we shouldn’t be using that grant to campaign against them. So there used to be quite some battles,” she said.

Problems

Eamon Conlon of A&L Goodbody (ALG) said that in the 1970s, FLAC was doing a lot of family law work and this meant it exposed problems that were hitherto hidden. This pioneering work led to an amount of law reform in that decade.

“Our theory was that by doing the work and gathering the statistics, we would expose the [family law] need,” said Karen Banks.

Eamon Conlon said he joined FLAC as a young law student and many years later was ‘activated’ while working for ALG, and re-engaged with the organisation through its Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA). 

Pro bono culture

Eamon Conlon said he was pleased to see a greater pro bono culture in Irish law, because of his FLAC ‘programming’ many years earlier.

“I did some of my best work in FLAC,” he said.

Current Supreme Court Justice Iseult O’Malley was a director and chair of FLAC from 1985 to 2012. She recalled that in the 1980s, the FLAC North Earl Street office in Dublin 2 had a phone that didn’t ring, and it was extremely hard to get a phone repaired at the time.

Volunteers were instructed to lift the phone periodically and check if anyone was calling, on the phone that had no ringer.

The constant influx of young lawyer volunteers meant that FLAC retained its radical edge, the gathering heard.

Funding

FLAC has been ‘generously supported’ by Atlantic Philanthropies but as this funding source has dried up, the professional bodies such as the Law Society and the Bar Council stepped in with financial backing.

The Law Society was represented by director general Ken Murphy at the celebration.

Professor Walter J Walsh, of the University of Washington School of Law, said that his time in FLAC as a young student gave him a chance to get out of the lecture hall and learn about a side of the law that wasn’t taught in the classroom.

Volunteers spent “hours and hours in the week, talking to people about their problems and trying to help them.

'Swept under the rug'

“For the issues that ordinary people faced at that time, the legal system didn’t really have a way of thinking or a body of law…to deal with issues that really were swept under the rug,” said Professor Walsh.

Professor Walsh said that when civil legal aid was introduced, with the establishment of the Legal Aid Board in 1980, it was decided that FLAC would continue as a ‘catalyst’ in society, in areas such as social welfare, tribunals and other areas of public interest.

Professor Gerry Whyte of Trinity College was instrumental in setting up specific welfare rights-focused advice clinics.

Objective 

FLAC’s early objective was to persuade the Government to fund civil legal aid. In the meantime, it wanted to provide a scheme of free legal advice. But a third objective was to give law students a clinical legal education, whereby they could learn by doing, Professor Whyte said.

“Back then, both the academic and professional side was all ‘talk and chalk’. The founders of FLAC saw an opportunity for law students to get ‘down and dirty’ with real cases and learn by doing.”

Though all law schools now have clinical legal education, Professor Whyte said that FLAC’S role of inspiring law students still continues.

The Trinity College FLAC branch now has 400 members, he said.

 Affirmed by FLAC

“When students come in during first year, those who are driven and inspired by the idea of doing justice and promoting equality, are affirmed by FLAC,” he said.

Former President Mary Robinson said that community legal advice, whether about debt, property, or family problems, provides access to justice which is at the core of democracy.

She said that FLAC founders understood that, in 1969, the legal profession was not fully serving those most in need of its services.

Struggle for women

Mrs Robinson said that FLAC supported the fight for the ‘unmarried mothers’ allowance in 1973, referring to the struggle for women who became pregnant at that time, to have the courage to keep their children.

Unmarried mothers were pariahs in Irish society at the time, she said.

At the time, one needed money to have access to the law, she said and the Irish establishment was very conservative.

Sense of justice

Mary Robinson said she drew her sense of justice from her grandfather, who had retired due to ill-health, from his practice as a Co Mayo solicitor.

“He had the great skill of not being able to talk to a child. He talked to me as an adult,” she recalled.

Mrs Robinson said that what she loves about FLAC is that it “grounds you in the reality of people’s lives.

“The legal profession is conservative in many ways, always has been and probably always will be, let’s face it.

Serving the people

“But those who volunteered for legal aid … had the wit to realise we are not serving the people who most need our services.”

Asked by interviewer Doireann Ní Bhriain whether there are still young idealistic lawyers out there, she replied “look around you”, referring to the room full of FLAC volunteers, past and present.

The rule of law and access to justice has not been taken seriously enough by the world, Mary Robinson said, and not enough is being done globally to make justice more real at local level, in contrast to the work of FLAC.

Access to justice

“I salute every one of you who have been working for access to justice, because it is so important,” she said.

“Without rule of law, and access to justice, we don’t have societies, we don’t have security, we don’t have faith in institutions, we don’t have anything.

“It’s a basic core of our democracy and yet we under-estimate it.”

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