People facing massive legal bills if income narrowly exceeds civil aid threshold

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People who don’t qualify for civil legal aid because they’re just over the income threshold end up with big legal bills they can’t afford to pay, according to a report by a law enforcement agency. legal advice.

Ree Legal Advice Centers (Flac) chief executive Eilis Barry said a ‘huge gap’ has opened up between those whose income is low enough to qualify for legal aid and those who can actually afford legal services.

The situation was indicative of an access to justice crisis, the charity said.

The organization’s 2021 annual report, released today, says people caught in this divide “are in a particularly difficult position when trying to borrow money from family, friends or lenders. or trying to navigate the court system as lay litigants”.

The report details a case where a party to a contested family law case was denied civil legal aid because their income was €500 above what is allowed under the threshold of the regime.

They ended up with a legal bill of over €20,000 which they are now struggling to pay.

“Cases like this are very common. It’s a real problem,” Ms Barry said.

According to a currently applied means test, a person must have an annual disposable income of less than €18,000 and disposable assets of less than €100,000 to be eligible.

A major review of Ireland’s civil legal aid system, chaired by former Chief Justice Frank Clarke, has finally been launched in recent weeks after years of lobbying by bodies such as Flac for the scheme to be reviewed.

The annual report says another problem is that those who qualify may face several months of waiting for their legal aid to be approved.

Some important areas of law, such as homelessness, housing and discrimination law, are also generally not covered by the program, Ms Barry said.

Flac’s chief executive said the organization had been contacted by almost 2,000 people last year with questions about employment law, but the charity had nowhere to refer them as they wouldn’t get legal aid and couldn’t afford a lawyer.

“There is currently no legal aid for employment and discrimination complaints before the Workplace Relations Commission,” she said.

Ms Barry said a measure of unmet legal need at present was the fact that the organization received 13,147 calls last year, the highest number since 2015.

“It is important to note that these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg as Flac cannot answer all calls made on our phone line,” she said.

Nearly 30% of all applications, a record 3,895, related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence and child custody and maintenance issues.

The report says ineligibility or a delay in receiving legal aid was a complicating factor in most of these cases. He said 55% of lay litigants had a family law issue.

“Callers often contacted Flac’s information and referral line in situations where they had been the subject of legal proceedings but were facing several months of delay in being approved for legal aid,” the report said. report.

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