Wednesday, 1 April 2015
Topical Issue Debate
The situation in respect of civil legal aid has now reached an absolute crisis point. People deemed eligible for civil legal aid have a waiting time for a full appointment with a solicitor of between six and 18 months. In my experience of people attending my constituency office, many women experiencing domestic violence are those seeking legal aid. For a person charged under criminal legislation, all he or she has to prove to receive legal aid is that they qualify financially. However, for many women and children suffering physical and emotional abuse, they do not get this Rolls Royce treatment.
Both civil and criminal legal aid are provided by the State. This should be with a level of equality and fairness across the board. The High Court determined several years ago that people should not wait longer than three months. Unfortunately, this is now got around by the Legal Aid Board, itself under workload pressure, by offering what is known as a triage appointment. This is a preliminary meeting best described as an introductory meeting. It does not assist the applicant for legal aid in any way. It is merely a lip-service appointment. The delays in terms of getting legal representation will still be the same at between six and 18 months. Some women seeking legal aid are dismissed by being told to just get a barring order. Not everybody is in a position to bring an application for a barring order. The reasons for this differ from social or family pressures, as well as not actually being able to face having their spouse barred and issues around children being aware of what is going on. The only option for people living in the misery of marriage break-up who cannot afford to deal with matters privately is to seek representation from the legal aid board.
To put the delays in context, a person may wait for up to 18 months just for a first appointment. If, following on from that, a legal process has to be started, that will take a further year to 18 months. During that time, women are in many cases condemned to live under the one roof while domestic violence is ongoing. It can be very frustrating and even a dangerous time as relationships continue to deteriorate. In many cases, women are seeking legal aid as they are in an abusive and violent relationship.
The delays in the District Court in Dolphin House are particularly bad. I welcome, however, the Minister’s recent announcement about the construction of a new family court. Former Supreme Court Justice, Catherine McGuinness, said:
Most District Court judges have a very long list and very little time to listen. Not listening is a symptom of this lack of resources.The delay from application to the hearing of the case is approximately 16 weeks. The courts are listing between 18 and 22 matters per court per day.
We cannot continue to have women forced to return to violent or abusive relationships due to the lack of options and supports because of the lack of civil legal aid.
On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank Deputy Mitchell O’Connor for raising this important matter, a subject which is a priority for the Minister.
The Legal Aid Board provides legal services for persons of limited means in certain civil matters subject to a financial eligibility and a merits test. I am informed by the board that domestic violence cases are treated as a priority and, as such, processed without delay. A contribution may be payable by the applicant. However, applicants can apply for a waiver if it would cause hardship to pay it. Such applications are invariably granted in domestic violence cases to ensure this would not cause a delay in providing services.
Legal services are provided through an extensive network of law centres or via a private practitioner panel.
Domestic violence cases are referred to a solicitor on that panel if one is not available within the law centre in order to avoid any delay in providing legal services. I have been assured that the board is not aware of any undue delay in the provision of legal services by the Legal Aid Board for domestic violence cases but if the Deputy has a specific instance in mind, she might let me or the Minister have the details.
Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, endeavours to facilitate co-ordination across the justice, health, housing, education, family support and community sectors. The office drives the implementation of the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Cosc is currently developing a new national strategy which is expected to be published in May or June 2015. Under the strategy, Cosc has run an annual funding programme for awareness raising around the country. Just under €300,000 was provided in funding in 2014. It is expected that around €280,000 will be provided in 2015. Cosc also funds 13 programmes for perpetrators of domestic violence and €484,000 was provided under this in 2014.
Work is being undertaken on the preparation of the general scheme of a reformed and consolidated domestic violence Bill. I understand that the Minister for Justice and Equality intends to bring the draft general scheme to Government by the end of April. Finally, the Deputy may also wish to note that work on the general scheme of a criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill is at an advanced stage. The Bill is expected to be published in mid 2015.
I will contact the Minister of State's office. I am definitely aware of cases where there is undue delay in the provision of legal services to victims of domestic violence by the Legal Aid Board. I must emphasise the issue of domestic violence. SAFE Ireland published a report on Monday that stated that the legal system in Ireland often regards domestic violence as a nuisance rather than a crime. If a criminal turns up at court, they will immediately have access to a junior or senior counsel if they do not have the ability to pay. I can assure the Minister of State that many women who have presented to me in my constituency office have not received immediate legal aid or junior or senior counsel. In many cases, rape, assault and battery within a relationship are not being treated as criminal offences. Even when the gardaí call to some homes where domestic violence has taken place, it is dismissed and rubbished and the woman is told to get over it or that it is not that bad.
I urge the Minister of State to look at the report and recommendations of SAFE Ireland. I can assure him that I have met mothers who have been beaten and raped. I know one woman who was slashed across her face, and received something like 50 to 60 stitches, in front of her young son. This is not acceptable. It is clear that not only do delays need to be addressed, the system needs to offer real support to women suffering domestic violence. The CEO of SAFE Ireland, Sharon O' Halloran, said that women are being worn down by the system rather than supported by it.
I again thank the Deputy for raising this incredibly important matter. I assure her that domestic abuse and the plight of victims of crime are matters of great importance to the Minister. As the Minister said in her opening remarks in Seanad Éireann on 3 March 2015, the Government is committed to introducing consolidated and reformed domestic violence legislation to address all aspects of domestic violence, threatened violence and intimidation in a way that provides protection to victims. The draft general scheme of the legislation is being finalised and it is intended that it will be considered by Government shortly after Easter. Following approval of the general scheme by the Government, it will be forwarded to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence for pre-legislative scrutiny. Work is also continuing on the drafting of a general scheme of a criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill. This Bill is expected to be published in mid-2015.
Persons seeking the assistance of the Legal Aid Board regarding domestic violence matters can be assured of the board's commitment to providing a prompt service in this area. I will look at the report. At no time and in no way, should any victim of domestic violence or any other kind of violence in our society ever think that they are being treated as a nuisance at any stage of the criminal justice process. I make a commitment to read that report and I look forward to the Deputy's constructive engagement in the process regarding the legislation the Minister intends to bring before this House shortly.