FLAC's campaign for Civil Legal Aid - a history

no11 FLAC meeting 1979

FLAC has worked to establish a legitimate system of civil legal aid since its founding. Early examples of this work are the establishment of the Coolock Community Law Centre (now Northside CLC) in 1975 and FLAC's involvement in the Pringle Committee.

In 1974, FLAC was invited to sit on the Committee on Civil Legal Aid and Advice, led by Mr Justice Denis Pringle, which produced a report for the Minister for Justice three years later on how to achieve an adequate system of civil legal aid in Ireland. Their suggestions included civil legal aid for areas of law, such as employment, social welfare and family, and educating individuals on their rights; the committee believed that many people did not fight for their rights because they were not aware of them.

During the same period, a landmark case in Ireland regarding legal aid was in the making. Johanna Airey was seeking legal separation from her husband, but could not afford the legal fees charged by solicitors. As there was no provision in Ireland for civil legal aid in family or any other matters, she was unable to afford the high cost of legal representation for those proceedings in the High Court.

Mrs. Airey took her case against the Irish government to the Commission of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg (Airey v. Ireland [1979] 2 E.H.R.R. 305). She complained that Article 6(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guaranteed a right of access to the courts and that, given the prohibitive costs of obtaining a judicial separation, and the lack of any state subsidy, this right had been infringed. The European Court of Human Rights accepted her argument and found that it would be unreasonable to expect a person untrained in the law and procedures associated with judicial separation in Ireland to effectively present their own case.

In 1980, a Civil Legal Aid and Advice scheme was created, which established the Legal Aid Board in Ireland. A number of Law Centres opened around the country. The Board was, however, greatly under-funded and was unable to provide for the needs of the communities it served. Also, the centres were neither located inside the communities nor did they attempt to forge links to them. They also did not engage in rights education.

Following much campaigning, the scheme was put on a statutory footing with the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995. The act imposed a means-tested system under which individuals had to prove that they were unable to afford the legal fees to have their cases heard, as well as a merits test to assess whether a case will be successful in court. The Legal Aid Board was to only address specific areas of law, such as family, employment, probate and landlord/tenant law. In practice, however, even this short list was reduced to one area: family law.

Thus the act was not as comprehensive as groups such as FLAC hoped for. The legislation does not cover many areas of law for which individuals might need and seek legal aid. Furthermore, large numbers of individuals have been placed on waiting lists for a lengthy period of time before they are even able to talk to a solicitor about their legal trouble. FLAC continues to campaign for a scheme that will permanently eliminate waiting lists, provide more funding for centres and offer services in all areas of civil law. FLAC believes the state also has an obligation to inform people about their legal rights and entitlements through legal education programmes.

In the absence of a truly inclusive state provision, FLAC maintains its support for independent, community-based legal centres around Ireland. It lobbies government and legislators, campaigns to extend and improve the scope of civil legal aid in Ireland and raises awareness on the issue.