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Caller to advice service faced €20k costs in family law case as they narrowly missed means test

FLAC said many people are trying to navigate the courts system alone and there is nowhere to refer lay litigants.

Many callers are trying to navigate the courts system alone and FLAC said it has nowhere to refer lay litigants.
Many callers are trying to navigate the courts system alone and FLAC said it has nowhere to refer lay litigants.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THERE HAS BEEN an increase in people seeking legal advice as they cannot afford representation in civil matters or are just over the thresholds for State legal aid, according to a new report from Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC).

FLAC, a non-profit organisation that provides pro-bono assistance through a network of advice centres, received 13,147 calls to its telephone information and referral line last year – the highest number of calls since 2015.

The organisation’s annual report, which will be launched later today, highlights the  “enormous stress some individuals and families were under in 2021″.

Almost 30% of all queries to the phone line related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence and custody and maintenance issues.

FLAC Chief Executive Eilis Barry said some callers were stressed because they did not qualify for legal aid and many narrowly missing the means test.

In one particular case, a caller was over the legal aid means test by €500 and had incurred legal costs in a contested family law matter of in excess of €20,000.

Barry said many callers are trying to navigate the courts system alone and FLAC has nowhere to refer lay litigants who are “completely daunted by court forms and procedures”.

“We also heard from callers contacting FLAC in situations where they had been served with legal proceedings but were facing many months of delay in being approved for legal aid,” she said.

FLAC and 45 other NGOs launched a campaign last year to ensure that vulnerable and marginalised individuals, families and communities can access civil legal aid. The Minister of Justice has committed to reviewing this system and a Civil Legal Aid Review Group has been established.

Barry said it is a matter of concern that FLAC has nowhere to refer callers looking for advice or representation in employment law cases as there is no legal aid for claims before the Workplace Relations Commission. 

Employment law queries were the second highest area of queries in 2021. 

“It is important to note that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as FLAC cannot answer every call made to our phoneline,” Barry said.

“We are concerned that significantly more people are trying to get through and are unable to, despite our increasing staff and resources on the phone line. There has to be a better way to provide services that enable access to justice.”

Housing

Last year FLAC also noted a steady increase in queries relating to housing matters, which were up over 9% on compared to 2020. FLAC takes on a number of cases in the public interest each year, mainly representing people experience poverty, disadvantage and exclusion and housing remains one of the most prevalent areas of law.

The report highlights, in particular, FLAC’s work relating to Traveller accommodation matters as 37 of the 88 case files which were open during 2021 were opened on behalf of clients of the Traveller Legal Service (TLS).

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The TLS received 85 new queries in 2021, most of which related to housing and accommodation matters.

This service acted in three sets of Judicial Review proceedings relating to housing matters, two of which settled in favour of FLAC’s clients. This included proceedings in relation to a local authority’s failure to comply with its own Traveller Accommodation Programme.

The council’s decision not to build a halting site which was included in that programme was subsequently quashed.

The TLS also defended proceedings taken by a semi-state body which sought to remove a Traveller woman and her children from a halting site. That case settled before trial when the client was offered and accepted alternative accommodation.

Sinéad Lucey, FLAC Managing Solicitor said litigation undertaken by FLAC continues to “illustrate the ongoing specific and acute legal needs of people and marginalised communities living in poverty and disadvantage, especially in areas like access to accommodation, discrimination and social welfare”.

“Even access to tribunals such as the WRC, which deals with discrimination cases in the first instance and which is supposed to be accessible for people without representation, is impossible for many without access to legal advice and representation,” she said.

“The harsh reality is that FLAC cannot provide representation beyond a very limited number of cases.

“However, services such as the Traveller Legal Service provide a model for how the right of access to justice of such communities may be vindicated through the provision of dedicated legal services with the involvement of the community.”

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