Cuts to legal aid actually make the legal system more expensive, a leading family and child law expert has warned.
Special rapporteur on child protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon described the situation as “penny wise and pound foolish”.
“Cuts to legal aid budgets have led to proceedings which are more drawn out and more difficult to resolve where adequate support is lacking,” he told the Oireachtas Justice Committee.
The comments came in the third of a series of hearings by the committee on the family law system. It plans to publish a report with recommendations for reforms.
Dr Shannon said that while Ireland had a “Rolls Royce” commercial court system, its family law system was “impoverished” and did not really have the capacity to meet the needs of “the most vulnerable members of our society”.
The Legal Aid Board has struggled to meet demand in recent years and the Government faced criticism for failing to significantly increase its funding in last year’s Budget.
Stephanie Lord, a legal and policy officer with legal advice charity Flac, told the committee the limited nature of legal aid in Ireland and restrictions on the type of cases it can be granted for means many people end up representing themselves in the courts.
“This raises all sorts of difficulties for individuals because of how complex the processes are,” she said.
Flac chief executive Eilis Barry told the committee there were particular concerns in the area of family law.
“Anecdotally, we have been told by family law practitioners that up to 80pc of people in the district court aren’t represented,” she said.
“I think that is a scandal. I don’t think that is desirable for the parties involved or the children or for the early resolution of matters.
“I think it causes huge delays as the judges are trying to grapple with the unrepresented litigant appearing before them.”
Unlike criminal legal aid, where a qualifying person’s costs are met in full, civil legal aid is usually not free and a person must make a contribution towards it.
A means test and a merits test must be passed before it can be granted.
To qualify, a person must have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000 and disposable assets of less than €100,000.
Ms Barry said the means test hasn’t been amended since 2008 and was leading to deserving cases not getting legal aid.
She cited a case where the parents of a terminally ill child sought legal aid to be represented in the High Court when a hospital was intending to make an application in respect of the child’s medical care.
Despite having no money due to being out of work for a number of months while they took care of their child, the parents were refused legal aid.
“We would argue that the means tests needs to be poverty proofed and reviewed on an ongoing basis,” said Mr Barry.
“We also argue that the Legal Aid Board should have a discretion to provide legal aid in certain circumstances where people have failed the means test.”
The committee also heard of cramped condition at Dolphin House, a venue for family law proceedings in Dublin.
Ms Lord said it was cramped, dirty, poorly laid out and not equipped to deal with the high volume of people using it.
Speaking of a recent visit to the courthouse, she said: “I found the entire experience to be rather shocking.”
She said it was common practice for people to have to engage in consultations with their solicitors in the hallways and on the stairs because there are so few consultation rooms available.
“People are having consultations with their solicitors in full earshot of complete strangers where they discuss issues, very intimate details of their lives,” she said.
Ms Lord said the situation was particularly distressing for victims of domestic violence.
“It makes it especially difficult when there are women who have to have consultations with their solicitor and the respondent is in the same area,” she said.