Written answers

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform

Criminal Legal Aid

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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Question 41: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on reports that legal aid applicants are waiting seven months to be appointed a solicitor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5750/10]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The Legal Aid Board is charged with the provision of a professional, efficient, cost effective and accessible legal aid and advice service and the Board is obliged to provide such legal services within the resources available to it. The Board's services are provided to clients through a network of thirty three law centres, including the Refugee Legal service (RSL), located throughout the country. This network is complemented by the use of private solicitors as required. Demand and priority service

The Board strives to ensure that an applicant will be provided with an appointment with a solicitor by the earliest possible date. However, the Board's capacity to maintain front-line services at an acceptable level is under pressure, particularly in the context of significantly increased demand for services in the law centre network, excluding the RLS. Applications at law centres in 2009 were 18% ahead of demand in 2008; 38% ahead of 2007; and 45% more than in 2006.

There were almost 14,200 applications in 2009 as compared with some 11,900 in 2008, an increase of 1,300. Nevertheless, approximately 40% of applicants for general legal services were given a service promptly, whether through law centres (about 15%) or by having their case referred to the Board's private practitioner service. Waiting times and numbers

The numbers of persons on the waiting lists on 1st January 2008, 2009 and this year were as follows:

1st January 2008 1st January 2009 1st January 2010

1,183 1,681 2,228

The waiting times in the Board's law centres at the beginning of the year and the end of the year were as follows:-

Number of Law Centres

Number of months 1 Jan 09 31 Dec 09

0-1 3 2

1-2 6 2

2-3 11 9

3-4 5 6

4-5 3 4

5-6 1 3

6-7 0 1

7-8 0 1

8-9 0 1

In spite of this growth in demand, in only three of the 29 Law Centres is the waiting time seven months or longer. These centres are Tipperary (seven months), Wicklow (8 months) and Wexford (9 months). The number of cases referred to private practitioners under the private practitioner service for District Court cases was just over 3,900 in 2009 as compared with 2,850 in 2008.

Staff and other resources

The geographically dispersed nature of the legal aid service means that the scope for redeployment of staff resources is extremely limited, outside of the Dublin area and, to a lesser extent, in Cork and Galway. As a result, notwithstanding the efforts being made to reconfigure how the Board provides services and to deploy resources wherever possible to meet priority demands, there are a number of locations where there are acute service delivery problems. While the primary driving force behind increased waiting times and numbers is the increase in demand for legal services, the moratorium on the filling of staff vacancies also means that the Board must devise new and innovative ways of ensuring that it can meet the demands placed upon it in the current challenging environment.

Initiatives to meet increased demand

The Board has taken a number of steps in recent years to ensure that it is operating to the highest possible levels of effectiveness and efficiency. For example, the Board has undertaken a complete review of both its law centre and Head Office operations, as well as a risk management review and has, as a result, streamlined its operations to improve efficiency .

In addition, the Board has introduced a number of key changes and new initiatives to its systems and structures which are designed to improve the level of service being offered to its clients. One such initiative is the introduction of an "Advice Only Service" under which clients will be offered an early appointment with a solicitor to discuss their situation on an advice only basis. This has been introduced initially for law centres where applicants for legal services might have to wait for four months for an appointment with a law centre for services. The medium and longer term focus of this service is the timely provision of legal advice to all applicants.

A second initiative is the establishment of a "Model Law Centre" in Dublin, which is being utilised to develop best practice standards and to introduce further initiatives across the Board, including the development of new IT systems. By improving efficiency in the manner in which the Board provides legal services, it is expected that the capacity of the Board will be increased and that more applicants will be provided with a timely service.

The Board is seeking to take every step possible to ensure that applicants for its services will receive a timely service and in this regard all arrangements for delivery by the Board of legal aid and advice in the current difficult economic climate are under consideration. In particular, consideration is now being given to the extent to which it might be possible to extend the scope of the private practitioner service to increase the availability of legal aid and advice services and to provide for greater flexibility in responding to particular pressure points in law centres.

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