Introduction to 10th Dave Ellis Memorial Lecture by Peter Ward
28 November 2017
THE DAVE ELLIS MEMORIAL LECTURE 2017
INTRODUCTION TO THE LECTURE BY EMILY O’REILLY,
PETER WARD SC, CHAIRPERSON FLAC
Check against delivery
Chief Justice, members of the judiciary and Oireachtas, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is my honour and pleasure to welcome you to the 11th annual Dave Ellis Memorial Lecture.
We are delighted once again to welcome such a large gathering of our friends and supporters in this annual reflection upon the work of the organisation over the past year and the opportunity to hear from a most distinguished speaker.
All of this is done in commemoration of our friend Dave Ellis whose contribution to public interest law and community activism continues to inspire us. Yet again I am delighted to welcome Dave’s family and Sarah and Brian in particular.
We are delighted to have such a distinguished guest speaker, European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly and we welcome her warmly. We traditionally take the opportunity on this evening to pause and reflect on the year that has passed and how FLAC has performed over the past 12 months.
We should as always mark some important changes in personnel in the past year. Emer Butler our Organisational Development Manager has left to take up a position in the public service and we wish her well. Ciaran Finlay our Legal and Policy Officer has moved to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Yvonne Woods who has been our Communications Manager for so many years has gone on to full time study after years of managing FLAC’s public profile and managing FLAC’s messaging. We wish to thank them sincerely for the huge contribution they have made to the success of Flac in recent years and we wish them well in their new endeavours.
It is also important to note that Eilis Barry completed her first year as Chief Executive Officer and has made an enormous impact already on the work of the organisation. Eilis is currently overseeing the preparations for our new strategic plan which will govern the work of the organisation over the next 3 years.
One particularly exciting developments is at hand. We are scheduled to move into our new premises on Dorset Street early in the new year. In all of the work that we have done over the past number of years on the issues of debt I am not sure whether it is correctly described as ironic - or perhaps some form of perverse just rewards - that we are taking over an old Bank building. Maybe it is a sign of things to come. In any event it is a hugely exciting moment in our history when for so long we as an organisation have operated out of cramped and inadequate premises we are now on the brink of moving into a fully serviced refurbished building which will be the focal point of all FLAC activities and which will have the capacity to inspire radical and innovative legal work for years to come. We look forward to welcoming you all very soon to the official opening of that premises.
THE SERVICE PROVIDED
FLAC gave information and legal advice to over 25,000 people in the last year. This again demonstrates the basic need which we meet as an organisation. That is a need of our citizens to have access to basic information about the laws that govern all of our lives. It is a barrier to social inclusion to be denied access to simple knowledge and facts about the rules by which we live as a society. Those who have access to that information have access to power. Knowing how the system works and having the ability to hire lawyers to navigate choppy waters that so many of us encounter in our lives puts you at a very significant advantage in life. It is to exclude huge swathes of our society from full participation in it to deprive them of such a basic tool as citizenship. FLAC volunteers in the first instance provide this access in communities all around the country. At the present time we have in or around 400 Solicitors and Barristers give up their spare time to volunteer in our centres.
We have had over 12,000 calls to the FLAC telephone helpline in head office. Being on the front line of such a service is an extremely challenging and potentially stressful occupation and we pay tribute to all of those who are prepared to deal with people at their time of greatest need.
Flac has published a substantive review of the Personal Insolvency legislation which merits serious consideration and response.
We have developed important case law in the areas of social welfare rights for people in direct provision; the housing assistance payments; and the social welfare and housing entitlements of homeless people. We provided representation for an amicus curia in the Schrems privacy litigation. We are particularly pleased to be involved in the Justrom programme which incorporates targeted legal services for hard to reach groups such as the Roma and Traveller community.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE
On this occasion last year I took the opportunity to restate what I thought were relatively uncontroversial principles about the importance of an independent judiciary in this country at a time when worryingly populist and dangerous attacks were being launched without any evidence or purpose.
We were particularly pleased that the Chief Justice identified access to justice as an area of priority for his tenure over the next year in his recent speech to mark the beginning of the new year.
The Chief Justice has been clear is his statement that ‘access to justice’ is not simply about access to lawyers and the court system. Rather it is concerned with all aspects of legal regulation of our lives from basic information on the laws that govern us to how the decision making process, at every level, can be made clearer, fairer quicker and more comprehensible.
He stated that improvements in the court process designed to make access to the system easier and more affordable are unlikely to come without costs. FLAC made a submission to the Courts Services on issues of accessibility including the Courts website which is need of major investment. The Chief Justice recognised the need for major investment in the court services. He also highlighted the work of the review committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, President of the High Court as being an important process which will hopefully result in procedural reform that will have a concrete impact on improving access to justice.
THE MEANING OF ACCESS TO JUSTICE
We in FLAC have argued for many years that access to justice is a multifaceted concept. It does not simply mean access to legal services provided by lawyers although it is partly that.
We in FLAC have a broad concept of access to justice and always have. The concept of equal access to justice is one which does require us to look at how our society functions at an official level and recognises that there are deep inequalities not only in wealth but also fundamental inequalities of power. The ability of citizens to access basic information about their legal rights and entitlements and to ensure ultimately that those rights are vindicated through the entire legal system without a fear of being overwhelmed by the cost or complexity of the system itself.
A fundamental means of improving access to justice is to improve access to legal services. It is a statement of fact that the legal profession is not reflective of our society as a whole. We must ask how and why it is that access to third level education is as unequal as it is in our country. This inevitably means that we have a legal profession that simply doesn’t mirror the society it seeks to serve.
The civil legal aid scheme was introduced after FLAC’s campaign throughout the 1970s and in the wake of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights finding Ireland to be in breach of the Convention on Human Rights in its failure to have such a civil legal aid scheme. The Legal Aid Board and access to the courts are fundamental parts of the administration of justice and the rule of law. It has been extremely difficult to secure political support for adequate funding of civil legal aid. It is quite simply not a compelling political issue. Politicians do not feel any need to prioritise or champion the civil legal aid scheme or access to legal services. So while discussing the annual budget of the civil legal aid scheme was something upon which we of course have something to say every year, it has become clear that it is on an issue by issue basis that real improvements in the civil legal aid scheme will come about. It is in campaigns such as the campaign to abolish the charge for victims of domestic violence that concrete gains can be made. Individual issues can arise which can allow for the development of the civil legal aid scheme in a way which would ultimately have the concrete result of employing more Solicitors to provide legal services to more people.
While fundamental reforms of the education system or fundamental reforms in the funding of civil legal aid are long term projects, it is important to look at other areas of law and legal regulation which could be reformed to provide basic improvements in access to justice.
The reform of civil procedure in the courts will be an important process in attempting to remove some of those obstacles to having a fair and reasonably priced court system.
A better decision-making first instance across the legal system would represent a major advance in securing equal access to justice. We do need better and more transparent decision making for example in social welfare decision making and in social welfare appeals which is an area we have worked in for many years.
Alternative dispute resolution has been a very real and a continuing revolution in how disputes are resolved in this country. I am absolutely convinced of the merits of mediation as a way of relieving parties of the prospect of lengthy and extremely costly litigation. When mediation works well it works to the benefit of everyone involved in having a matter resolved early and cheaply.
We have come to a point where the courts should be seen very much as the last resort rather than the first resort as perhaps they have been in this country.
It is only if we can agree to implement these improvements and access justice across a wide range of areas that we can ultimately claim to be actually making a society that is more equal.
The PILA project has advanced the cause of pro bono work by Solicitors firms to the point now where a very significant number of large firms in the country have engaged with that project. It has also been a very useful means whereby very successful legal practitioners whose work is often devoted to the business community can take a wider view of the nature of the work that they do and adapt their skills to benefit, for example, NGO, charities and community groups – as well as individuals - in new and innovative ways.
INTRODUCTION OF EMILY O’REILLY
The role of an Ombudsman is now an established feature of our public administration and legal system and one that plays a central and complementary role in ensuring access to justice in a manner that can avoid the cost, delays and pitfalls of litigation. It has become a vital tool in making that equality of access a reality.
Emily O’Reilly had a long and distinguished history as one of our foremost and most distinguished political journalists for many years in this country in both print and broadcast media. She was appointed Ireland’s first female Ombudsman and Information Commissioner in 2003 and in 2007 she was also appointed Commissioner for Environmental Information.
Emily was elected as the European Ombudsman in 2013 and was re-elected in December 2014 for a five year mandate.
It is my great pleasure to invite Emily O’Reilly to deliver this year’s Dave Ellis Memorial Lecture.