Demand for free legal advice exceeds FLAC resources

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The independent organization offering free legal advice to those who cannot afford it, said demand for its services last year exceeded its resources.

FLAC said there were more than 13,000 calls to its telephone information line, but many other callers could not get through.

The organization said there was a crisis regarding people’s ability to access justice, particularly in relation to family law and employment matters.

FLAC chief executive Eilis Barry said there was an ongoing crisis of unmet legal needs.

FLAC received 13,147 calls to its newsline last year, the highest number since 2015.

But, Ms. Barry said those numbers were just the tip of the iceberg, as FLAC can’t answer all the calls. She said they were worried that many more people could get through, and said there had to be a better way to deliver services that enabled access to justice.

Nearly a third of the applications concerned family law matters.

Ms Barry said people were already stressed by the time they went through, and many had narrowly passed the legal aid means test, currently set at an annual income of €18,000.

In one case, she said, an appellant exceeded the €500 threshold and was already facing legal fees of more than €20,000 in a family law case.

The second highest number of labor law queries. Ms Barry said FLAC had nowhere to refer these callers because there was no legal aid for employment and discrimination complaints before the Workplace Relations Commission.

She said questions about housing issues were steadily increasing and the organization was also concerned about lay litigants trying to navigate the court system without lawyers.

Even those who qualified for legal aid had to wait months to be approved, she added.

Ms Barry said there was a need to rethink the way access to justice was provided and added that the organization was relieved that the government had put in place a long overdue review of the system.

FLAC’s independent legal center handled more than 88 cases last year, but the organization said it could not meet the request for assistance.

It focuses on the most vulnerable groups in society such as Travelers and the Roma community and on handling cases with wide-ranging implications, in areas such as housing, social protection and discrimination.

Lawyer Sinead Lucey said marginalized communities living in poverty and disadvantage have specific and acute legal needs.

She said access to tribunals such as the WRC, which deals with cases of discrimination, was impossible without access to legal advice and discrimination.

She said the harsh reality was that FLAC could only handle a very limited number of cases. However, she suggested that services such as the Travellers’ Legal Service provided by the organization could provide a model for how access to justice for these communities could be justified.

FLAC said the crisis has been exacerbated by the negative financial impact of Covid-19, the rising cost of living and the housing crisis.

Those who are marginalized and in more precarious employment are more likely to face persistent over-indebtedness and stress, he says.

FLAC’s annual report is launched this morning by Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell.

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