THE UN COMMITTEE on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women issued a series of recommendations to enhance women’s rights and equality in Ireland after its formal examination in Geneva last month of an Irish state delegation.
In particular, the expert committee on women’s rights expressed concerns about how Ireland treats one group: women in domestic violence situations who need state legal aid to access court protections.
The Committee’s recommendations
The Committee names long waiting lists, restrictive financial eligibility criteria and the requirement to pay financial contributions where safety, protection or barring orders are sought, as ways that women on low income are being denied access to justice.
As a result, the Committee recommends Ireland should increase funding for civil legal aid services, review the financial eligibility criteria and end the requirement for victims of domestic violence to make financial contributions for civil legal aid when seeking court protection under domestic violence legislation.
This would ensure access to justice to all women without sufficient means.
The only escape route
Civil legal aid may offer the only escape route for some people in domestic violence situations. Through the state scheme, administered by the statutory Legal Aid Board, people affected by domestic violence can access the legal system and request a court-ordered legal remedy, such as a Barring, Protection or Safety Order.
For example, a Barring Order requires the violent person to leave the family home, while a Safety Order prohibits the violent person from committing or threatening further violence.
Despite popular belief, civil legal aid is not free; there is at least a minimum contribution of €130, which increases on a sliding scale, depending on income.
Cost of legal aid
FLAC’s fear is that people are staying in domestic violence situations because they cannot afford this financial contribution, despite being eligible for aid on financial grounds.
For somebody on the basic social welfare rate of €188 per week, a minimum fee of €130 is unaffordable. Others who appear to have more money may be victims of financial abuse and cannot pay the required contribution either.
The Legal Aid Board has a waiver system whereby it can drop its fees in hardship cases. However there is little public awareness about this option and, crucially, it is not automatically applied in cases of domestic violence.
As a result, people experiencing domestic violence – including children – may be left in extremely dangerous, vulnerable situations.
A case study
Take the case of Christina [not real name], which was brought to our attention by Women’s Aid, a leading national organisation working to stop domestic violence against women and children.
Christina had been held captive by her husband, who had threatened to kill her. The Gardaí advised Christina to go to court to obtain an Interim Barring Order.
This temporary order put her husband out of the house for a week, until the court hearing on a full Barring Order.
Christina’s application for civil legal aid was successful, meaning that she was entitled to get a solicitor to represent her in court for the full hearing. However, she could not afford the minimum contribution fee of €130, and the Board solicitor could not act for her until she paid.
She also did not know that she could apply for a waiver of the financial contribution. As a result, she ended up representing herself at the hearing.
Not an isolated example
Christina said she was “totally intimidated” by the legal proceedings and, without a solicitor’s help, got “all tangled up”. Her husband, represented by a lawyer, claimed that Christina was abusive to him.
In the absence of the necessary legal supports to effectively argue her case, the court refused to grant Christina a Barring Order and her husband was allowed back into the family house.
Unsurprisingly, Christina was too afraid to return home, and she sought shelter in a women’s refuge with the help of Women’s Aid.
Christina’s case, unfortunately, is not an isolated one. There are many other people, including men, who cannot escape situations of physical, emotional and financial abuse because they lack the resources to do so. FLAC believes that access to legal protection should not depend on a person’s ability to pay. The UN shares this opinion.
An automatic waiver is needed
The Legal Aid Board can give immediate effect to the UN Committee’s recommendation by introducing an automatic waiver of the financial contribution in cases of domestic violence.
The 2017 campaign theme for International Women’s Day was “Be Bold For Change”. In this spirit, FLAC is calling on the Legal Aid Board to be bold and take prompt, decisive action to ensure that access to protection is available to all, not just those who can afford it.
Eilis Barry is Chief Executive of FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) which promotes equal access to justice for all – read more at www.flac.ie.
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