FLAC annual report indicates access to justice crisis
27 June 2022
The Chief Justice of Ireland, Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell will launch the FLAC Annual Report 2021, “Towards Equal Access to Justice”, at 9:00am on Monday, 27 June 2022.
FLAC, the independent legal, equality and human rights organisation, works in numerous ways to promote the right of access to justice. Key highlights from 2021 include:
- There were 13,147 calls to FLAC’s telephone information line in 2021.
- 2,729 consultations at phone advice clinics.
- New remote free legal advice clinic for the deaf community.
- 110 social justice organisations received legal assistance through FLAC’s PILA Pro Bono Referral Scheme
- FLAC’s independent Law Centre dealt with over 88 case files.
- Hosted a series of seminars examining 20 years of Irish equality legislation. At the final seminar, the Minister for Equality announced the first comprehensive review of Ireland’s equality laws.
- FLAC published Pillar To Post - 3 detailed papers on issues arising in new and existing consumer debt cases.
Speaking in advance of the launch, the Chief Justice commented:
“FLAC has established itself as an institution, and an invaluable one, which over the course of its history has campaigned for change, protected the weak, challenged the strong and educated us all.”
Throughout 2021, the combined ongoing impact of the pandemic and increased financial pressure on individuals and households added to what CE of FLAC Eilis Barry is describing as ‘an ongoing crisis of unmet legal need in this country’.
Overwhelming demand for legal information and advice
In 2021 FLAC received 13,147 calls to its Telephone Information and Referral Line, the highest since 2015.
FLAC’s Telephone Line provides an insight into the enormous stress some individuals and families were under in 2021. Almost 30% of all queries related to family law matters such as divorce, separation, domestic violence and custody and maintenance issues.
Eilis Barry stated;
‘We are hearing from individuals and families who are under enormous pressure in the areas of employment and family law. We could hear people were already stressed by the time they managed to get through to the phone line. Many of their queries were complex and took longer to provide the information they needed.
Callers were stressed because they didn’t qualify for legal aid, many narrowly missing the means test. In one particular case, a caller was over the legal aid means test by €500 and had incurred legal costs in a contested family law matter of in excess of €20,000.
Many callers try to navigate the Courts System alone. FLAC have nowhere to refer these ‘lay litigants’ who are desperately trying to who are completely daunted by Court forms and procedures.
We also heard from callers contacting FLAC in situations where they had been served with legal proceedings but were facing many months of delay in being approved for legal aid.
Employment law queries were the second highest area of queries in 2021. FLAC also noted a steady increase in queries relating to housing matters which were up over 9% on compared to 2020.
It is a matter of concern that we may have nowhere to refer callers looking for advice or representation in employment law cases. There is currently no legal aid for employment and discrimination claims before the workplace relations commission. – Eilis Barry
Commenting further on the numbers seeking legal information and advice, Eilis Barry, FLAC CE, said;
It is important to note that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg as FLAC cannot answer every call made to our phoneline. We are concerned that significantly more people are trying to get through and are unable to, despite our increasing staff and resources on the phone line. There has to be a better way to provide services that enable access to justice.
What is clear is the acute need for the frontloading of accessible early legal information, advice, advocacy. We are relieved and pleased that the government has established a long overdue review of the civil legal aid system. What is needed now is a radical reimagining of how the various aspects of access to justice are delivered from legal information, legal advice, and advocacy to how legal representation is delivered, especially to individuals and communities experiencing poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.
In addition to the Telephone line, FLAC’s Phone Advice Clinics, were extremely busy with more complex and difficult queries. 2,729 consultations were held during 2021. 35.6% had a family law query and 30% had an employment law query.
FLAC also supports NGOs and organisations that advocate and provide services to disadvantaged communities. Through PILA’s Pro Bono Referral Scheme 110 social justice organisations received legal assistance. The main areas were employment law, corporate governance and equality.
Litigation in the Public Interest
FLAC as an independent Law Centre takes on cases in the public interest and opened 30 new case files in 2021. It mainly represents people experiencing poverty, disadvantage and exclusion. Housing, Social Welfare and Discrimination matters remain the most prevalent areas of law.
Casework highlights during 2021 include:
- Over one third of case-files related to discrimination/equality matters. FLAC acted in discrimination cases relating to the grounds of race, membership of the Traveller community, disability and receipt of housing assistance payments.
- An Organic Farm was ordered to pay €8,000 to a FLAC client when he was asked to leave the farm where he was volunteering after disclosing his HIV status.
- A discrimination case taken by Dr. Ethel Brooks, Chair of the European Roma Rights Centre, against An Garda Síochána reached settlement before the Circuit Court.
- FLAC acted in five separate cases in which Roma women were refused access to services. Three of these cases settled in favour of FLAC’s clients.
Housing / Accommodation
- The Traveller Legal Service (TLS) received 85 new queries, most of which related to housing and accommodation matters.
- The TLS acted in three sets of Judicial Review proceedings relating to housing matters, two of which settled in favour of FLAC’s clients. This included proceedings in relation to a local authority’s failure to comply with its own Traveller Accommodation Programme. The Council’s decision not to build a halting site which was included in that programme was subsequently quashed.
- The TLS also defended proceedings taken by a semi-state body which sought to remove a Traveller woman and her children from a halting site. That case settled before trial when the client was offered and accepted alterative accommodation.
Research published just last week by the University of Limerick on “Irish Travellers' Access to Justice” documents institutional racism against Travellers in the criminal justice system. FLAC’s casework provides an insight into the extent of the discrimination experienced by Travellers, and other groups such as Roma, in their engagement with State bodies and public services more generally, particularly in the context of housing and accommodation.
Sinéad Lucey, FLAC Managing Solicitor, commented:
‘Litigation undertaken by FLAC continues to illustrate the ongoing specific and acute legal needs of people and marginalised communities living in poverty and disadvantage, especially in areas like access to accommodation, discrimination and social welfare. Even access to tribunals such as the WRC (which deals with discrimination cases in the first instance) and which is supposed to be accessible for people without representation is impossible for many without access to legal advice and representation.
The harsh reality is that FLAC cannot provide representation beyond a very limited number of cases. However, services such as the Traveller Legal Service provide a model for how the right of access to justice of such communities may be vindicated through the provision of dedicated legal services with the involvement of the community.’
The Need for Change
FLAC uses the experience of its services and casework to inform policy recommendations and analysis. 2021 highlights include:
- FLAC has advocated for equality to be at the heart of pandemic-response measures. In June 2021, the FLAC and TCD Law School Seminar Series – Status Check: 20 Years of Ireland’s Equal Status Acts took place. At the last of these four seminars the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth announced the first comprehensive review of Ireland’s Equality legislation
- FLAC published the first 3 in a series of 4 papers examining issues arising in new and existing consumer debt cases in light of Covid 19. Paper 4 in the Pillar to Post Series will be published in the Autumn of 2022.
According to Paul Joyce, Senior Policy Analyst with FLAC,
‘The negative financial impact of Covid, the rising cost of living and the housing crisis really do create the perfect storm where financial difficulties become more long-term then short-term and where those marginalised and in more precarious employment are more likely to face persistent over-indebtedness with all the stress that entails.’
Notes to Editor
Embargoed copy of the FLAC 2021 Annual Report will be available to download at www.flac.ie on Monday morning at https://www.flac.ie/publications/flac-annual-report-2021/
FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an independent legal, equality and human rights organisation, which exists to promote equal access to justice. As an NGO, FLAC relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work.
What does FLAC do?
- Operates a legal information and referral telephone line.
- Runs a nationwide network of legal advice clinics where volunteer lawyers provide basic free legal advice.
- Engages in litigation and takes on cases in the public interest, as an Independent Law Centre.
- Engages in research and advocates for policy and law reform in areas of law that most affect disadvantaged and marginalised people.
- Operates a Pro Bono Referral Scheme through the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), and engages the legal community and civil society in using the law to advance social change.
- Runs a Roma Legal Clinic.
- Operates the Traveller Legal Service.
Headline statistics for FLAC information services in 2021
Statistics from Telephone Information and Referral Line
FLAC’s telephone information and referral line provided 13,147 callers with legal information in 2021.
29.6% sought information regarding FAMILY LAW:
- 44% related to divorce and separation (an increase of 29.3% on previous year)
- 29% concerned custody/access/ guardianship (a rise of 17.8% on previous year)
- 17% Maintenance (a rise of 9.8% on previous year)
- 12% were Domestic violence queries (a rise of 8.6% on previous year)
15% related to EMPLOYMENT LAW questions:
- 34% related to contract terms (up 13% on last year)
- 14% were about dismissal
- 14% were about grievance procedures (an increase of 47% on last year)
- 14% were about redundancy (down 16% on previous year)
- 9% of calls about bullying
Statistics from Legal Advice Clinics
FLAC’s face-to-face advice clinics began to take place by phone during Covid.
In 2021 2,729 service users received free legal advice.
35.6%% were FAMILY LAW queries
- 52% related to Divorce
- 36% related to Custody, access and guardianship (up 7% on previous year)
- 28% related to the family home
- 25% related to Maintenance
- 13% Domestic violence queries (up 3% on previous year)
30% were EMPLOYMENT LAW queries
- One third of those related to Contract
- 22% related to Dismissal
- 17% Redundancy
- 16% Discrimination
Equality Law Review partnership with IHREC
FLAC and IHREC launched Equality ACTion in November 2021, a joint project aiming to strengthen the engagement of civil society with the review of the equality legislation, Equality ACTion held a series of events and roundtables aimed at Civil Society Organisations that planned to engage with the Review of the Equality Acts. The project also published accessible Briefing Notes relating to the Review, the consultation process, and the Equality Acts.