Access to Justice unattainable for too many - NGO FLAC has 12,468 callers to their legal helpline during 2020.
29 June 2021
The Chief Justice of Ireland, the Hon. Mr Justice Frank Clarke, will virtually launch the FLAC 2020 Annual Report, “Remote Justice”, at 9:00am on Tuesday 29th June 2021. Speaking in advance of the launch, the Chief Justice commented:
“In a year in which the onset of the pandemic brought with it challenges which none of us could have foreseen, never was the work of FLAC so important. FLAC continued to provide legal information and legal advice to many in a time of heightened anxiety. A number of important new initiatives with which FLAC was associated, such as the Pro Bono Pledge and the Traveller Legal Service combined with FLAC’s continued work in highlighting unmet legal needs has placed FLAC front and centre as a champion for securing equal access to justice for all.”
Throughout 2020, the impact of the pandemic highlighted gaps in the existing legal aid system and created an increased need for individuals and organisations to access justice. There was a huge demand on our services, especially FLAC's Telephone Information Line, which we were just not able to meet.
Eilis Barry, FLAC CE, today stated:
“The importance of Human Rights, Equality and Access to Justice is heightened during times of crisis such as a pandemic. Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequalities and barriers to justice in our society. The upcoming reviews of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme and Equality code must comprehensively address these issues.”
Key highlights from 2020:
· There were 12,468 calls to FLAC’s telephone information line in 2020.
· A total of 4,860 people received basic legal advice from approximately 550 volunteer lawyers at free legal advice clinics which were conducted remotely during Covid. The main queries related to family and employment law.
· 210 community and voluntary groups received legal assistance through FLAC’s public interest law project PILA, from private practitioners acting pro bono.
· In 2020, FLAC dealt with over 100 open casefiles.
· FLAC formally launched the Traveller Legal Service in 2020.
· PILA finished out the year with the launch of Pro Bono Pledge Ireland – a new initiative which asks the legal profession to commit to promoting access to justice by providing free legal assistance to those in need.
Providing Legal Information through our Telephone Information Line and Legal Advice at FLAC Clinics
The FLAC Information Line was at the forefront of providing legal information and assistance in 2020 and no more so than when the Covid Restrictions commenced. In 2020 FLAC received 12,468 calls to its Telephone Information and Referral Line.
FLAC’s Telephone Line provided valuable insight into the impact of Covid on people’s lives including; restrictions to people's movement as well as business closures, overnight changes to people's employment status and increased family tensions when spouses and partners had to reside together for extended periods of time.
Employment Law queries comprised 16% of our queries, an increase of 38.6% compared to 2019 and Family Law queries comprised 27.6 % of the queries raised, an increase of 14.2%.
FLAC CE Eilis Barry noted;
It is a matter of ongoing concern that there is no legal aid available in employment cases, as a result the almost 2,000 FLAC service users with an employment law issue who got through to FLAC’s phoneline were unable to access legal aid.
Family law queries rose by 14% and the restrictive means test and delays in obtaining legal aid also meant that many callers were unable to access timely legal aid for crucial family law issues.
The number and complexity of the queries received on the phoneline highlights the acute need for legal information and advocacy services. Employment law queries rose by 39% and, during one week in May, exceeded family law queries for the first time in FLAC’s history.
The pressures arising from the Covid Pandemic restrictions, often exacerbated, already very difficult family and marital situations with 38.5% of family law queries related to Separation or Divorce in 2020. Many callers raising maintenance queries and seeking information, were in dire financial straits. 17.5% of family law queries related to maintenance.
28.1% of family law queries related to access/guardianship or custody, many of these were from parents who due to covid restrictions were facing difficulties in having access to their children and did not know where to turn to seek information and advice.
It was particularly concerning for FLAC to receive calls from people who were the subject of ongoing and exacerbated domestic violence and felt in genuine fear for their safety. This was often due to financial and alcohol stresses as well as people now living in close confines due to the sudden loss of employment arising from Covid Restrictions. This is particularly concerning in light of recent revelations that domestic violence victims who made emergency calls for help did not receive the standard of service from Gardaí that they required and to which they were entitled.
FLAC Chief Executive, Eilis Barry, commented:
“The impact of the pandemic dominated FLAC’s work throughout 2020. For many people the FLAC telephone information line was their first, and at times only, port of call. FLAC staff reported growing levels of distress and anxiety among callers.
In addition to the Telephone line, FLAC established Phone Legal Advice Clinics after the closure of face-to-face legal advice clinics in March 2020. 4,860 people received legal advice at FLAC Clinics during 2020.
210 social justice NGOs received legal assistance through the pro bono referral scheme, a 40% increase on 2019, illustrating the difficulties NGOS were facing during the pandemic.
Undertaking Litigation and in the Public Interest
FLAC as an independent Law Centre continues to take on cases in the public interest and opened 41 new case files in 2020. Housing, Social Welfare and Discrimination matters remain the most prevalent areas of law. FLAC’s legal team continued to represent clients of the Roma Legal Clinic
Casework highlights during 2020 include:
- FLAC opened three case files on behalf of Travellers who were faced with eviction proceedings.
- FLAC successfully sought reviews of decision on the entitlement to Child Benefit of two Roma women.
- Successful Judicial review proceedings taken on behalf of a homeless Roma couple against South Dublin County Council in relation to a failure to assess their housing application.
Sinéad Lucey, FLAC Managing Solicitor, commented:
“The work of the new Traveller Legal Service has been dominated by discrimination and housing issues. This provides an insight in the harsh realities faced by Travellers in Ireland today, and the enormous unmet legal need within the Traveller Community. FLAC’s casework arising from the Roma Legal Clinic continues to illustrate the difficulties faced by the Roma community in terms of poverty, access to public services and employment and incidents of direct discrimination.
However, litigation alone cannot resolve the deep societal prejudice and structural discrimination faced by groups such as Roma and Travellers. The Government must be cognisant its obligations under the Public Sector Human Rights and Equality Duty in providing vital services such as housing and social welfare, and place human rights and equality considerations at the heart of policy-making.”
Civil Society acting as an Independent Human Rights and Equality Watchdog.
Throughout 2020, FLAC, as an independent human rights and equality organisation, highlighted the legal needs of existing marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and groups as well as those made vulnerable by the pandemic.
FLAC provided detailed analyses of actions taken by the Department of Social Protection to amend eligibility criteria for social welfare payments without a legislative basis for doing so. Another issue highlighted by FLAC was subsequently resolved through the effective removal of the requirement to “genuinely seek work” while in receipt of the PUP.
The Department also ceased engaging in “airports checks” after FLAC raised concerns about the legality of their activities at ports and airports. FLAC acted for a woman whose claim for the Covid PUP was cut off after she was subject to an airport check when travelling abroad to care for her mother who was seriously ill. The case settled on confidential terms.
FLAC represented a claimant whose Jobseeker’s Benefit was disallowed while she travelled abroad and for two weeks following her return on the basis that the regulations allowing for payment during absences from the State had been “suspended” during the pandemic by a non-legislative Circular. This was successfully appealed.
“During the pandemic it became apparent that FLAC had a crucial role to play in upholding the rights of citizens in the State’s administration of Justice. At times, FLAC had to point out where the State was not complying with its own legislation. It is imperative as we emerge from Covid the question of how to address the mainstreaming of equality and human rights into the administration of public services and the gaps in the current legal aid system be addressed. “
- FLAC CE Eilis Barry
The pandemic highlighted the need for a proper and accessible legal aid system.
FLAC has campaigned for this for many years, building on this, FLAC sought
to make reform of civil legal aid a key issue in the General Election in Ireland in 2020. 163 candidates signed up to this pledge. We are pleased that the Department of Justice has committed to a review of the civil legal aid system as part of their work plan in 2021.
FLAC’s new chairperson David Fennelly BL, highlighted the unwavering commitment of FLAC staff and volunteer lawyers in providing legal assistance to those most in need during the pandemic:
“Timely Access to basic legal information and advice for those in need is the first step in ensuring access to justice. We are extremely grateful to our FLAC and PILA volunteers and FLAC’s partner network of Citizens Information Centres and other community centres nationwide for their assistance in adapting services.
Volunteers at FLAC Clinics rose to the challenge posed by the pandemic. Within weeks of the closure of face-to-face clinics over one hundred solicitors and barristers had volunteered to provide phone legal advice clinics. As a result, FLAC was able to ensure that a vital and accessible service remained available during the pandemic.
Finally, thank you to FLAC’s funders who supported FLAC’s work during 2020. Without your support, FLAC simply would not be able to carry out the work we do to strive for access to justice.
Notes to Editor
FLAC 2020 Annual Report – Remote Justice is available to download athttps://www.flac.ie/assets/files/pdf/flac_annual_report_2020_-_final.pdf
FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an Irish 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?
1. Operates a legal information and referral telephone line.
2. Runs a nationwide network of legal advice clinics where volunteer lawyers provide basic free legal advice.
3. Engages in litigation and takes on cases in the public interest, as an Independent Law Centre.
4. Provides specialist legal advice to advisers in the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) on personal debt and consumer credit law.
5. Engages in research and advocates for policy and law reform in areas of law that most affect disadvantaged and marginalised people.
6. 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.
7. Runs a Roma Legal Clinic.
8. Operates the Traveller Legal Service.
Headline statistics for FLAC information services in 2020
Statistics from Telephone Information and Referral Line
FLAC’s telephone information and referral line provided 12,468 callers with legal information in 2020.
27.6% sought information regarding FAMILY LAW:
· 39% related to divorce and separation (rose by 7% compared with 2019)
· 28% concerned custody/access/ guardianship issues (rose by 29% from 2019)
· 18% Maintenance
· 12% were Domestic violence queries (which rose by 48%)
16% related to EMPLOYMENT LAW questions:
· 30% related to contract terms
· 14% were about dismissal (40% more than 2019)
· 10% included grievance procedures
· 7% of calls about bullying
5.6% were HOUSING RELATED:
6% were from LAY LITIGANTS:
FLAC’s information line regularly receives calls from lay litigants who are endeavouring to represent themselves in complex court cases and who are desperately in need of assistance, advice and representation which FLAC does not have the resources to provide. Lay litigants made up approximately 6% of callers to the information line, compared with just 4% of callers the previous year, which was an increase of almost 60%.
Of the queries from Lay Litigants:
· Over half (54%) had a family law issue, which was an increase of 80% on the previous year.
· 13% had a civil law issue.
· 4.5% had a debt related query.
· 4.2% had a criminal law issue.
Statistics from Legal Advice Clinics
In line with Government guidance, we closed all of our FLAC clinics on 12th March 2020.
FLAC then began to operate phone based legal advice clinics for more detailed advice. Between March and December, 2202 appointments were made for 543 phone clinics via FLAC’s Telephone Information and Referral Line.
In 2020, 4,860 service users received free legal advice.
34% were FAMILY LAW queries
· 53% Divorce
· 29% Custody, access and guardianship
· 23% Maintenance
· 10% Domestic violence queries
24% were EMPLOYMENT LAW queries
· 27% Contract
· 21% Dismissal
· 15% Redundancy
· 10% Discrimination