Review Group to be chaired by retired Chief Justice
significant consultation to be undertaken as part of the review
The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has updated Government this week on her plans to shortly commence a review of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme, as committed to in her Justice Plan 2022.
Announcing the review, Minister McEntee said:
"Since the Civil Legal Aid Scheme was first established over 40 years ago, Irish society has changed and the demands on the Scheme have grown.
"To provide maximum benefit to the people it was established to serve, within the finite resources available to fund legal aid, I believe that a robust, comprehensive review of the Scheme as committed to in Justice Plan 2022 is an important step.
"The review will allow for an assessment of how well access to justice is facilitated by our Civil Legal Aid Scheme, particularly for those on low incomes. The Review Group will make recommendations for its future, including in relation to eligibility."
The Review Group will be chaired by retired Chief Justice, Frank Clarke, with membership drawn from those who work with marginalised groups, legal practitioners, academics, department officials and representatives from the Legal Aid Board, which administers the current Scheme.
The Minister also highlighted how people will be able to have their say on this important issue:
"As part of the review process, I intend that there will be significant consultation to ensure that the insights of a range of stakeholders regarding the operation of the scheme – and how best to support those of limited means with legal needs – will inform the work of the Review Group.
"Capturing the views of those who have unmet legal needs will be an important part of the Group’s consultation and engagement. One of the areas which will be considered in the review is eligibility for civil legal aid.
"Ultimately the review should map out a future for the Civil Legal Aid Scheme; one which will provide for a flexible service that has, as far as possible, the capacity and resources to respond to the priority legal assistance needs of those of modest means.
"I will be launching a public consultation in the coming weeks and I encourage as many people as possible to participate and to have their say on this important matter."
The Review Group is expected to commence its work in June 2022 for a period of 12 months. It will make periodic reports to Minister McEntee on the progress of its work, before submitting its final report once its work is completed.
The Review of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme is part of a broader civil justice reform programme the Minister is spearheading across her Justice Plan 2022, including the establishment of a dedicated family court structure; the finalisation of the first national strategy on family justice; an independently chaired Judicial Planning Working Group, which is examining the number and type of judges needed over the next 5 years to ensure access to justice; and the Implementation Plan on Civil Justice Efficiencies and Reform Measures, which the Minister published last week.
The Civil Legal Aid and Advice Scheme was first introduced by Government in 1979.
The independent Legal Aid Board operates a total of 30 full-time law centres along with 12 part-time centres where they provide Legal Aid services.
The Civil Legal Aid Scheme constitutes 2 parts: legal advice and legal aid/representation. Eligibility for the scheme is determined by way of 2 tests:
1. A means test, for which the threshold is currently €18,000 net of certain allowances, including providing for spouse/partner, each dependent, child care costs, PRSI, income tax, pension deductions etc.; and
2. A merits test, which involves the Legal Aid Board assessing:
whether an average person would be willing to go to court if they were paying for it with their own money
whether a solicitor or a barrister acting reasonably would recommend that the person would go to court, knowing that the applicant was paying for it; and based on the facts of the case
The Legal Aid Board will also examine:
whether the applicant has grounds for taking the case, or defending the case being taken against him/her;
whether litigation is the best way of solving the dispute;
the likelihood of the applicant succeeding in the case; and
the cost to the taxpayer against the benefit accruing to the applicant were he/she to be successful in the case
The latter 2 of these criteria will not be applied in cases involving child welfare or custody.
The Scheme caters for a range of civil law issues, but family law and childcare have consistently accounted for the majority of cases supported in recent years.
In most cases the legal advice and/or aid provided by the Legal Aid Board is not free. In most cases, an applicant for legal aid will have to make a payment which is called a contribution.
While the majority of people granted civil legal services pay the minimum contribution (€30 for legal advice and €130 (inclusive of the initial €30) in cases where full legal representation is provided, the contribution a person is liable for will depend on their disposable income and capital assets. Fees are waived in domestic violence and public childcare cases.
Membership of the Review Group
Retired Chief Justice, Frank Clarke (Chair)
Mr. Thomas O’Mahony – Legal Aid Board nominee
Ms. Sara Phelan SC – Bar of Ireland nominee
Ms. Áine Hynes - Law Society nominee
Mr. Bernard Joyce – Director of the Irish Traveller Movement
Mr. Liam Coen – Department of Justice nominee
Professor Niamh Hourigan – Sociologist and VP of Academic Affairs – Mary Immaculate College, Limerick
Mr. Tom O’Malley – Senior Lecturer in Law, NUI Galway
Professor Frances Ruane – Economist and former Director of the ESRI
Ms. Eilis Barry – Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC)
Department of Public Expenditure and Reform nominee – name TBC