The right of access to justice is accepted as a constitutional principle and a right under the European Convention on Human Rights. Without it, people are unable to have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. It is a basic tenet of a functioning, democratic society and it is vital for social inclusion.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 emergency, it will be more vital than ever that the rights of vulnerable groups are safeguarded. A new social contract between citizens and the State, as proposed in the draft document between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will only function effectively if it is underpinned by a civil legal aid scheme which provides access to justice for all.
The State’s Civil Legal Aid Scheme, which is now more than 40 years old, must be reformed as follows:
- Remove the statutory limitations of the existing Scheme: So that people can access legal aid in all areas of law, including appeals before the Workplace Relations Commission or the Social Welfare Appeals Office. For example, a person experiencing discrimination in the workplace cannot currently apply for legal aid for employment and equality cases before the Workplace Relations Commission.
- Make the financial means test to access legal aid more inclusive: The existing means test is overly strict and out of touch with the reality of the cost of living, with the result that people on low incomes, who cannot afford a solicitor, are denied legal aid.
- Ensure the Legal Aid Board is adequately resourced: So that waiting times to access legal aid are reduced. Waiting times for a first consultation can be an average of 38 weeks in some parts of the country. This is simply too long to wait and can cause issues for those seeking legal remedies with strict time limits such as Judicial Review, which has an effective time limit of three months
- Reform the model of civil legal aid: So that stronger links can be developed with disadvantaged communities through education in relation to rights and through campaigns for law reform on issues affecting those communities.
- Government review of access to justice must be revisited: The review of access to justice, commenced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice & Equality last December, must be revisited when the new Committee is in place.