Thursday, 3 June 2021
Department of Justice and Equality
Facilitating greater access to justice is one of the key objectives of my Department’s Strategy Statement and the Justice Plan 2021.
To achieve this, we must streamline both the civil and family justice system; ensure that cases can be managed to give the parties more certainty about the progress and likely costs of their cases; ensure that more disputes are resolved earlier without resorting to court-based litigation; that legal costs to take actions are reduced; and we must ensure that people of modest means can access civil legal aid when needed.
As the Deputy will appreciate, this will involve a range of measures and initiatives to improve how our courts, and the sector that supports it, operate.
Minister McEntee last year published the Report of the Review Group set up to review and make recommendations to reform the administration of civil justice. My Department is in the final stages of developing an implementation plan which will set out changes to be made in all areas of civil justice, including litigation costs, case delays, and access to services and legal aid. Once completed, the implementation plan will be brought to Government and published. The extensive reforms proposed by former President Kelly will transform the experience of those seeking to access civil justice in Ireland.
The Deputy will be aware that the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 has already brought greater transparency to how legal costs are charged. It obliges legal practitioners to provide more detailed information about legal costs to their clients. It has introduced statutory rules and limitations when advertising legal services, and enables legal services users to apply to the Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator to have disputed legal costs adjudicated. Under the General Scheme of the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021, which was approved by Cabinet this week, we are also facilitating the introduction of new legal partnerships, which will enable barristers and solicitors to jointly provide legal services for the first time, thereby offering a greater range of services and legal expertise to their clients.
Building on that work, and the recommendations of the Kelly Review, the Justice Plan 2021 commits to commencing work to introduce new scales of legal costs which would be independently drawn up, in order to reduce legal costs and to provide greater certainty to the users of legal services in relation to cost. My Department has tendered for research bids to undertake an economic analysis of appropriate models and approaches.
A General Scheme of a Bill to create a specialist family court system, which is designed to help people get a quicker resolution of those most sensitive of family disputes, was published last year. A public consultation has commenced on the first Family Justice Strategy.
For those who require direct State support to engage in litigation, especially family matters, my officials are currently working on the scope and nature of a review of the civil legal aid scheme. I intend to commence this review later in the year with a view to bringing forward proposals for reform. Last Friday, I announced that the Legal Aid Board will no longer include the Housing Assistance Payment in their calculation of entitlement to civil legal aid. This will have a positive impact for those who are of modest means and are in receipt of HAP or any other housing support measure provided by a Government Department or any other public body.
My Department's Justice Plan 2021 also provides that a Mediation Council will be established and I expect this reform will support the ongoing development of the mediation profession as an accessible alternative to more costly and time-consuming legal proceedings.
Finally, regulations for the use of Pre-Action Protocols in medical negligence cases are being finalised by Government – these reduce the costs of litigation by enabling parties to agree to how they will conduct their case between them.
The range of actions I have outlined to the Deputy today have all been developed with the aim of reducing legal costs and enhancing citizen’s experiences of accessing justice to resolve particular matters.