Download the report:
The Legal Aid Board has published its 2013 Annual Report and Accounts. The Board provides civil legal aid and advice to those who cannot afford to retain a solicitor through its nationwide network of law centres. It also offers legal services for those seeking asylum through its Refugee Legal Service. Since November 2011, the Board has also assumed responsibility for the Family Mediation Service. A number of the criminal legal aid ad hoc schemes have also passed to the Board. Responsibility for the administration of the Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme transferred to the Board on 1st October 2011 and for the Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme (formerly the Attorney General’s Scheme) on 1st June 2012. The Criminal Assets Bureau legal aid scheme came to the Board on 1st January this year.
The Board experienced a significantly challenging year in 2013. Although demand for its services remained similar to the 2012 figure, it remained extremely high at a time when its resources were constrained. The report shows that the Legal Aid Board received 16,851 applications for civil legal aid and advice in 2013, similar to the previous year. In total, the Board’s law centres processed 17,304 cases in 2013 which was a slight reduction on 2012, while 5,640 cases were referred out to private practitioners. The Refugee Legal Service, which provides legal services to asylum seekers, experienced a drop of 2% in new clients in 2013 to 708. This was consistent with the falling number of asylum applications in the State in recent years.
Commenting on the report, the Chairperson of the Legal Aid Board, Ms Muriel Walls and Chief Executive, Dr Moling Ryan noted that the main feature of the Board’s operating environment in the past year has been a continuing extremely strong demand for civil legal aid services with considerable difficulties in meeting this increased demand with reduced resources. Although demand for civil legal aid services in 2013 was similar to that in 2012, the increase in demand for such services over the seven years from 2006-2013 is still well over 70 per cent. The challenge for the Board is its capacity to meet this demand in the face of reduced staffing and financial resources. The Board has sought to respond to the difficulties faced by continuing to provide a priority service in respect of certain areas such as domestic violence, child abduction and child care cases. These accounted for 17% of all applications in 2013. The triage process, introduced in 2012, was extended in 2013 the objective being that all applicants are seen for a short advice meeting with a solicitor soon after applying. While not a definitive solution to the problem of waiting times, it is an approach which has considerable merits for applicants as they get early access to a solicitor enabling them to have clarity on how best their legal problem might be resolved, including the timeframe involved. The Board, though, is still faced with considerable waiting times in many Law Centres despite its best efforts.
The Board continues to extensively utilise the Private Practitioner scheme. This service applies to certain family law matters in the District Court. In 2013 more than 5,600 of the Board’s cases were handled by private practitioners. Budgetary concerns restricted the extent to which the scheme was utilised in 2013.
During the year the Minister agreed to the Board’s proposal to increase legal aid contributions. However, the extra resources generated are being directed to providing a better and speedier service. The Board also operates a waiver provision in cases of particular hardship.
Responsibility for the Family Mediation Service transferred to the Board in November 2011. The initial focus was on reducing waiting times to meet a mediator and all centres with one exception had waiting times of 3 months or less at the end of the year. The focus in 2013 has been on the potential synergies between the two services, civil legal aid and family mediation. During 2013 the mediation initiative in Dolphin House in Dublin involving the Courts Service, the Law Centre and the Family Mediation Service maintained the momentum of the previous year. This has been a hugely successful project with the benefits accruing to parents, children, the wider community, the courts and the legal aid system. The project has finalised more than 1,000 agreements by early 2014 and had generalised annualised savings to the justice system of over €200,000. It has benefited too from the active encouragement of the judiciary.
The Board has used the Dolphin House experience to put in place modified integrated initiatives in Naas, Cork, Limerick and Tipperary. At the end of 2013, plans were also at an advanced stage for the introduction of a more structured pilot project in Cork in 2014.
The process of transferring responsibility for the management of the main criminal legal aid scheme and the remaining ad hoc schemes continued in 2013. The Criminal Assets Bureau legal aid scheme moved to the Board at the end of the year and work is continuing on the draft legislation to transfer the main scheme to the Board. Considerable efficiencies have already been generated in the schemes now managed by the Board.
The Department of Justice and Equality has been working closely within the Board to gradually transfer responsibility for all operational elements of legal aid to the organisation. Progress was made in identifying a legislative vehicle to facilitate the transfer of the Mental Health Commission legal aid scheme to the Board and it is hoped that this will take place in 2014. The most recent initiative involved giving the Board responsibility for a legal aid scheme for the benefit of family members of a deceased person in certain instances in Coroners’ Courts.
The Board is sensitive to the resource issues associated with delivering the range of services it now provides and will provide in the future. Budgetary constraints have created huge difficulties for the Board in providing a timely service. While a number of initiatives were introduced to manage the increased demand for service over the past seven years, they have been insufficient to ensure clients are met with the timely service the Board aspires to provide. Nonetheless, the Board intends to build on the progress made during 2013 on managing service delivery in a cost effective manner and addressing the challenges associated with the ongoing widening of the Board’s remit.
Highlights from the Legal Aid Board’s 2013 Annual Report and Accounts
There were over 17,500 applications for civil legal services to the Board in 2013, a figure similar to that in 2012.
The number of new clients registering with the Board’s Refugee Legal Service fell by 2%, in line with the reduction in recent years of the number of persons seeking asylum in this country.
Over 17,300 cases were processed during the year by the law centre network, down slightly from 2012. The number of child care cases increased by 12%.
Waiting times for an appointment with a solicitor in civil legal aid cases came under increasing pressure in 2013 due to increased demand and the constraints on the Board’s resources. The issue of accessibility to timely legal services continued to prove difficult in 2013. The waiting time for a first appointment with a solicitor for matters other than those deemed priority cases was in excess of four months in 16 of the Board’s law centres at the end of the year.
However, the Board continued to provide a priority service where it considered that an immediate or near immediate service was needed. These included cases of domestic violence, child abduction, cases involving applications by the State to take children into care, and cases that had statutory time limits close to expiry.
The Board continued to make use of private practitioners to help reduce the numbers of clients waiting for legal services. The private practitioner service currently operates for certain family law matters in the District Court although some restrictions are in place for budgetary reasons. The Scheme for involving private practitioners in divorce and separation matters in the Circuit Court has been constrained for budgetary reasons.
During the course of 2012 the Board introduced a ‘triage’ approach in a number of its law centres. This has continued into 2013. The aim of the triage approach is to ensure that all applicants get some level of legal advice in a timely fashion (the aim is ultimately a month). Thus the waiting times in respect of a number of centres set out the time waiting for a triage appointment as well as those for a second consultation (where that is deemed necessary).
Significant progress was made during the year on the implementation of a comprehensive legal case management system (EOS) which was made available across the law centre network in August 2012 and all of the Board’s legal work aside from asylum cases is managed on the new system. The system allows greater flexibility and effectiveness in the use of the Board’s staffing resources.
On the criminal legal aid side expenditure on the Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme in 2013 came to €3.4 million down from €3.5 million in 2012, and expenditure on the Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme in 2013 came to €0.8 million down from €0.9 million in 2012 and €1.2 million in 2011.
The Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 which was enacted in July 2013 makes provision for legal aid or advice to be provided for family members of a deceased person in certain specified instances in Coroner’s Courts. The scheme is to be managed by the Board.
Waiting times for services from the Family Mediation Service have been reduced to three months or less in every centre bar one. There was an increase of over 30% in the number of couples agreeing to mediate with 710 mediated agreements concluded during the year.
The pilot mediation initiative in the District Family Court premises in Dublin which was established in 2011 as part of the Board’s promotion of non-court based family dispute resolution continued in 2013. Persons presenting at the District Court in relation to family disputes are provided with information on attending mediation. A key aspect is that mediators are on site in the same building, enabling ease of access to this process. A review during the year indicated a net annualised saving of over €200,000. The initiative also continues in Cork and Naas.
Exchequer funding for the Legal Aid Board in 2013 was €33.759 million. This included provision for the traditional legal services provided by the Board as well as for the Family Mediation Service which came within the Board’s remit in November 2011. It also included a provision for the costs of administering the ad hoc criminal legal aid schemes. Staffing levels rose slightly to 368 wholetime equivalents (including FMS) from 363 in 2012.
The Board hosted its annual family law conference in June 2013 in NUI Galway. The theme of the conference was ‘Does the present process of childcare cases in the courts system serve the best interests of the child?’ The conference was addressed by a number of high profile speakers on various aspects of civil law in Ireland and abroad.
For further information, contact:
Dr Moling Ryan, Chief Executive, 087 6474980
Ms Eileen Bowden, Director of Corporate Services, 087 6287432
Ms Fiona Morley, Manager, Research & Information Unit, 087 9677279
Legal Aid Board
Phone: 066 947 1000 LoCall: 1890 615 200
Fax: 066 947 1035
47 Upper Mount Street,
Phone: 01 644 1900
Fax: 01 662 3661