Legal rights group says better system for debt an urgent essential

2 June 2011

Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) today released its Annual Report for 2010. Demand for information and advice from FLAC's network of free legal advice clinics, provided by over 650 volunteer lawyers, remained high in 2010 with a notable increase in the proportion of queries related to debt.

Launching the report, Noeline Blackwell, Director General said, 'Putting a comprehensive debt settlement system in place must be an absolute priority for the government in order to begin addressing the over-indebted, highly stressful situations currently experienced by thousands of Irish citizens .In 2007, FLAC volunteers in our centres around the country provided legal advice to 153 individuals on debt related issues. In 2010, this number had reached 787 - an increase of over 400% in just four years. It is the most vulnerable people in our society who need advice and support to navigate a complex legal system and while our volunteers provide a valuable first stop information and advice service, this cannot replace the services of the state-funded Legal Aid Board which urgently needs more resources in order to fulfil its remit in a timely fashion.'

As well as providing some basic, free legal services to the public through the network of centres and a telephone information line, FLAC also campaigns on a range of legal issues with a particular focus on Legal Aid, Social Welfare, Debt & Credit, and Public Interest Law. Some of the highlights of FLAC's work in 2010 include:

- FLAC's Senior Policy Researcher, Paul Joyce, participated in the government appointed 'Expert Group on Mortgage Arrears and Personal Debt', representing the
- The Irish State's decision in June 2010 to drop its appeal against a high court ruling that Irish law was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) because it failed to provide for recognition of transgender persons. This case, taken by FLAC on behalf of Dr Lydia Foy, represented the first declaration of incompatibility under the ECHR Act 2003 which required the Irish government to change the law. The inclusion of gender recognition legislation as a priority in the programme for government was a positive development but unfortunately this has yet to be realised.
- The publication of One Size Doesn't Fit All, a report examining the direct provision system for asylum seekers in Ireland. The report, which recommended an audit of all direct provision accommodation centres to ensure that basic human rights standards were being met and called for an independent complaints system, concluded that the people within the direct provision system were being treated like units to be administered rather than individual human beings with specific circumstances and needs. This conclusion was unfortunately shown to be accurate when, in July of last year, 150 residents of Mosney were given transfer orders at short notice and without prior consultation or consideration of individual circumstances. FLAC initiated a successful campaign against this decision.

Editors' notes:
1. FLAC's Annual Report 2010 is available upon request.
2. FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an independent human rights organisation which works to promote equal access to justice for all. It runs a lo-call telephone information line giving general legal information and supports a network of volunteer-run evening FLAC clinics around Ireland (35 in Dublin and 52 in other parts of the country).
3. FLAC works with the Legal Aid Board to see how our services can complement the work of the state funded body. We also monitor the waiting times for people to see a solicitor through the Board. In December 2010, there were 3,870 people nationwide who were approved for legal aid but were on waiting lists for a first appointment with a solicitor. Of these people, 2,421 were waiting for an appointment at a centre with a waiting list of longer than four months. This compares to 2,475 people waiting in December 2009 (of whom, 1,700 were in law centres with a waiting list of four months or more) an overall increase of 56%. The part of the country in which a person lives has a significant impact on how long he/she must wait to see a solicitor, with differences in waiting times of up to nine months.
4. FLAC has produced research reports in the area of personal debt: 'An Ends Based Means' and 'To No One's Credit' in 2003 and 2009 respectively.
5. The report on the direct provision system One Size Doesn't Fit All is available here.
6. The Public Interest Law Alliance, PILA, is a project of FLAC that aims to promote public interest law in Ireland and specifically to ensure that NGOs who require access to legal services, in order to work for and with the communities that they serve, are not denied access to these services because of cost. To this end, PILA are working with lawyers and law firms around the country on a pro bono referral scheme in which they match NGO legal need with lawyers who are willing to give their time free of charge.