Wednesday, 29 May 1985
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Taylor: asked the Minister for Justice if he will make a statement on the disposition of funds allocated under the Funds of Suitors Act, 1984 indicating when the dispositions will be made and to which organisations.
I am glad to be able to say that the Government have authorised, following proposals of the Legal Aid Board, the establishment in 1985 of law centres under the Scheme of Civil Legal Aid and Advice in Tallaght, Tralee and Athlone, and of a second law centre in Cork, to be financed to the end of 1987 from moneys available for civil legal aid under the Funds of Suitors Act, 1984, at an estimated cost of £450,000. The Tallaght Law Centre will have two solicitors, and the other centres will have one each.
It is also proposed to open further law centres during 1986 and 1987 at Dundalk, Portlaoise, Castlebar and Letterkenny if sufficient additional funds are available under the Funds of Suitors Act — the availability of further funds will depend on the cost of the new Children's Court for Dublin, which is also to be funded under the Act.
The current position about services at the board's existing law centres is that there is a waiting period of about three to four weeks to see a solicitor for non-emergency cases in Dublin. In Cork, where there is at present one centre, there is a delay of about two weeks, in Limerick there is a delay of four weeks, in Sligo one week, and in Waterford applicants can be seen by a solicitor within two to three days. Emergency cases at all of these centres are dealt with without delay.
The Galway centre has been closed to all new cases since 11 April last. I understand from the board that a second solicitor was assigned to that centre on 22 April to replace a solicitor who is on maternity leave, and this should improve the position there. The total number of cases which the centre dealt with between its establishment in September 1980 and the end of 1983, which is the latest year for which figures are available, was 1,608.
The expansion of services now approved  is also expected to improve the position at Galway and Limerick because at present solicitors from these centres provide part time services under the scheme at Athlone and Tralee respectively and that will cease when centres are established in these towns.
The board's proposals do not include a centre at Trim. The board feel that that area can be serviced from Dublin but it would be a matter for the board whether further facilities, including part time facilities, should be provided at Trim, depending on resources available and other relevant circumstances.
A complete exemption for the board from the terms of the Government's staffing embargo is not a realistic proposition. However, as a result of discussions which I had with the Minister for the Public Service last year, the Legal Aid Board obtained a partial exemption from the terms of the embargo to enable three solicitors' vacancies to be filled, and of course the expansion I have just mentioned will involve further recruitment of solicitors and ancillary staff.
As regards questions about the adequacy of the existing scheme, the demands that are being made on the scheme are so great that, having regard to the limited resources available, any consideration of major changes in the scope of the scheme must be deferred.
As regards voluntary organisations involved in providing legal services, such as FLAC and the Coolock Community Law Centre, the position is that funding for such organisations by my Department ceased shortly after the official civil legal aid scheme came into operation.
As regards Deputy Taylor's question concerning the disposition of funds under the Funds of Suitors Act, the information I have given covers the disposition of these funds in so far as the matter comes within my area of responsibility. Any question of the disposition of such funds in other areas would be a matter to be dealt with by the relevant Ministers.
 It has always been the intention that the civil legal aid scheme will be placed on a statutory footing when adequate experience has been gained of its operation. The board have submitted proposals for legislation to me. I intend to have them examined as soon as priorities in other areas have been dealt with. I can say that the absence of legislation has not inhibited the operation of the scheme nor will it inhibit the further expansion now approved.
Mr. Hyland: The Minister in his reply covered a wide and varied range of questions. Will the Minister accept that the increasing demand for aid under the scheme is a symptom of the deteriorating economic climate and that there should be a commitment from the Government to increase the availability of aid under the scheme? Would the Minister also accept that because of the serious limitation to the scheme which the Minister admitted in part of his reply, the standard of representation available is inferior to the extent that solicitors involved in the scheme are not able to give the amount of time which the client deserves and which the cases require? Would the Minister agree that the scheme could be seen, as it is operating now, to discriminate between those with financial resources and those without? I know this is not the fault of the excellent solicitors involved in the scheme but the failure of the Government and the Minister to appoint sufficient people or make sufficient resources available to the board. From my observations on the operation of the scheme I know that clients do not get that high——
Mr. Hyland: ——standard of service which could be available if there were fewer demands on the scheme. I put it to the Minister that enough solicitors are not involved in the scheme and that the standard of representation is not as good as it should be.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I do not agree with the relationship between the workload of the Legal Aid Board and the economic situation as outlined by the Deputy. Many of the cases that come to the board, in fact three quarters of them, are in the area of family law and there is no indication of a strong relationship between these and the economic climate. On the question of whether or not the service is inferior to what one would get if one could pay for the best legal brains of the country, the service given is very good. I take the point that they have a very big workload. Where there are emergency cases, especially cases involving family violence they give an immediate and excellent service. In other cases there is a delay before people can make an appointment. I hope the steps I have announced will reduce that delay. Obviously the opening of an advice centre in Tallaght with two solicitors will take some of the pressure off the other Dublin offices. The opening of a service in Tralee will take pressure off the Limerick office because Tralee is being serviced as a kind of substation of Limerick at the moment, and the two legal aid solicitors will be able to stay in Limerick fulltime now. The same applies to Athlone. When the centre is opened there, the two people in Galway will be able to work exclusively for Galway and will not have to travel to Athlone to service that area. The second law centre in Cork will help the situation there. The steps I have outlined will meet the problem but I also hope that the Legal Aid Board will open, as they have in the past, clinics in other towns so that the service can truly be a national service.
Mr. Haughey: The Minister mentioned the Coolock Community Law Centre in the course of his reply. Will the Minister repeat what he said about that because I did not catch it in the reply? What is the position in regard to this centre and about providing an adequate level of funding for it?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): In considering the terms of the civil legal aid  scheme the Government decided that payments to voluntary bodies providing a legal service should cease when the State scheme was introduced. When the State scheme came into operation in August 1980 FLAC announced the closure of 15 part time centres. The Coolock Community Law Centre announced that it was continuing in operation and received a final grant in 1982. It was made a specific condition on paying that grant that it was the final one payable by the Minister for Justice. Then a submission was made to the Minister for Social Welfare, and his Department have been funding the Coolock centre since 1983. There is no intention by that Department to discontinue the help to the Coolock Community Centre which does such excellent work but whose work is of a wider nature than the facilities supplied by the law centres.
Mr. Haughey: Is the Minister aware that it provides a very beneficial service and that its position is very unsatisfactory as there is no certainty about it? Is the Minister aware that this centre must exist from year to year hoping that it will continue to get funds and that it was really only as an ad hoc emergency measure that I, as Minister for Social Welfare, provided this aid for the centre?
Mr. Haughey: Would the Minister not agree that the time has now come to take this law centre under the aegis of the Minister for Justice, fund it properly and end the uncertainty that the people running the centre have to face from year to year?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I am responsible for the funding of the centres that operate under the civil Legal Aid Board. A decision was taken by the previous administration in 1980 that contributions to voluntary bodies should end once the Legal Aid Board scheme was set up but funding was continued to Coolock for a number of years up to 1983. Then it passed to the Minister for Social Welfare from the Minister for Justice. The Minister intends to provide funds again this year. I agree with Deputy Haughey that they are providing a very good service. There is also a provision in paragraph 632 of the Legal Aid Board's scheme whereby the board can aid centres that have a community involvement. That would be another avenue worth exploring.
Proinsias De Rossa: In relation to Question No. 14, will the Minister clarify his reference to the funds of suitors money and the disbursement of that? Will money be made available from that fund for the Coolock Community Law Centre? Question No. 21 relates to the three vacancies the Minister said had been filled. Will the Minister indicate where those three vacancies have been filled? To which law centres were solicitors appointed? Question No. 22 asked the Minister to indicate what law centres have waiting lists or are not in a position to deal with cases as they come? I am aware that a number of law centres refuse to accept cases because they are not in a position to deal with them. In one case I know of, people have been told to come back in six weeks time.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): The Minister for the Public Service agreed that I could appoint those three solicitors outside of the embargoed posts. One was appointed to Gardiner Street on 24 January 1985 and two were appointed to Cork Law Centre in 1984.
In relation to the funds of suitors, the Government have decided to allocate the money available from the residue of the funds of suitors to the Legal Aid Board to fund the expansion of the legal aid  services, as I have outlined, in Cork, Dublin, Tallaght, Tralee and Athlone. The amount of money required to do that until 1987 is £450,000. That will not be the total residue, but it is not possible for me to calculate the total residue until the Board of Works have accepted tenders for the new children's court in Dublin. Then I will know what remains and the remaining portion of the residue will be used again for legal aid purposes to fund centres at Dundalk, Portlaoise, Castlebar and Letterkenny. At the moment I am not in a position to quantify that because it depends on the cost of the children's court in Dublin which has priority under the funds of suitors. However, I know that there is at least a residue of £450,000 which is being used for the four centres I have outlined.
As I said in my reply, there is a waiting period of three to four weeks for non-emergency cases in Dublin. In Cork, where there is one centre at present, it is about two weeks; in Limerick the delay is about four weeks; in Sligo one week; and in Waterford there is no waiting period and applicants can see a solicitor in two or three days. The new centres should cut into that waiting list a great deal and, of course, anybody who has an emergency problem is dealt with without delay. Emergency cases are still being dealt with in all centres without delay. One could give various examples of emergency cases, but generally family law cases where violence is involved and there is a necessity for a barring order quickly is the kind of emergency case one would meet most often and there is no waiting period for them.
Miss Harney: Given that the Minister answered 29 questions together I hope that you, Sir, will bear with me if I ask a number of supplementaries to a number of the questions. In relation to the Funds of Suitors Bill I am disappointed that only something in the region of £450,000 of this money will be going towards the Legal Aid Board.
Miss Harney: I hope that the £450,000 that the Minister has seen fit to give to the Civil Legal Aid Board will be used more usefully than money in the past that went to the building of luxurious wine cellars at the Kings Inns.
Miss Harney: The Minister says that we have a three to four weeks' waiting list for people to get appointments in the Dublin area with the Legal Aid Board. That is appalling. Will the Minister agree that the Legal Aid Board are totally understaffed and that the service they provide is most unsatisfactory? The Legal Aid Board have one solicitor for 33,000 social welfare recipients. The average number of solicitors in the country is one per——
Miss Harney: Let me ask the Minister why he did not see fit to open a full legal aid community office in the Tallaght area. Will he agree that the present legal aid scheme does not allow people to have representation before, for example, employment appeals tribunals and social welfare hearings and in many housing cases and that this is very unsatisfactory and the only way we can overcome it is either by extending the range of services available——
Miss Harney: Will the Minister improve the staffing levels in the Legal Aid Board? Will he agree that they are grossly understaffed at the moment, that people are unable to get appointments in time, particularly in relation to marital problems many of which we have in the Tallaght area? The situation is most unsatisfactory, particularly if the two parties to a dispute cannot attend the  same centre. Will the Minister agree that the best way of solving the situation as far as Tallaght is concerned would be by providing funds from the Funds of Suitors Bill for the opening of a proper law centre which could be staffed by the many excellent people who have staffed FLAC centres around the country?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I am not too sure where to begin. I am sorry that the Deputy is disappointed. I hope that the centre being opened in Tallaght will be very beneficial in the constituency. It will involve the service of two solicitors and ancillary staff. It will provide a much needed service in Tallaght. Deputies who represent that constituency have pressed for this facility for some time and I am glad to be in a position to provide the money from the Funds of Suitors to the Legal Aid Board to enable them to provide that service. It will also help the situation in other centres in Dublin because it will reduce the pressure on them. As Deputy Harney has pointed out, quite a number of cases come from the Tallaght area and are being dealt with by the other centres at the moment.
The Funds of Suitors Bill was debated fully here and it was decided to spend money in a certain way. I reminded Deputy Harney that her side of the House put down an amendment to provide extra funds for one category which would have made the residue for legal aid smaller than it is now. More credit is due to the Seanad than to the House for twisting the arm of the Minister and getting a commitment that it would be used for legal aid rather than spent at the Minister's discretion.
I am absolutely sure of the £450,000 at the moment but I hope that at least another £0.25 million will be available for legal aid centres in the other places that I have outlined. Because of the uncertainty of the cost of the Children's Court I cannot quantify the residue, but it will be sizeable, and £450,000 is by no means the end of the story. Whatever the residue is, the bulk of it is to be spent on the provision of legal aid.
 The only other point, apart from aspirational points and expressions of concern with which we all agree, is the question of tribunals. The Pringle Committee report in 1974 recommended that legal aid should be available for appearances before all courts and tribunals. However, the Government decided in setting up the scheme that tribunals should be excluded, though it is possible for an applicant to receive legal aid in connection with a tribunal hearing. A previous administration made that decision because the tribunals are intended to provide simplified, inexpensive procedures for dealing with administrative disputes without the expense of legal representation. For example, persons are frequently represented or assisted by a trade union official in presenting their case before a labour tribunal. As a matter of fact, the ICTU made representations for the exclusion of tribunals from the scope of the scheme. In that context, when people debate matters such as the abolition of juries and setting up tribunals to decide the level of, say, injury in places of work, the argument is always that it would reduce legal representation and that the tribunal would deal with the thing more efficiently because of the exclusion to a large extent of legal representation. That is the policy decision on tribunals. It was a sensible decision at the time and we should not go away from that course.
On the question of the nature of a law centre which should have been provided in Tallaght, the scheme that operates in conjunction with my Department is the civil Legal Aid Board set up by the Government, and I think it appropriate that our Minister for Justice in extending the scheme would extend it through the Government's sponsored scheme rather than in any other way. As I have pointed out, there is provision in the document which set up the Legal Aid Board for the board to become involved in a situation where there is community involvement in the running of centres. I refer the Deputy to paragraph 6.3.2 of the scheme.
Mr. Allen: Would the Minister let me know the number of cases dealt with by the service in 1984 and the number of people on the waiting list in Cork at present? How many solicitors will be working in the Cork centres with the opening of the second centre in Cork? How many solicitors are working in the service nationwide? Can the Minister tell me the total cost of the service nationwide in 1985?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I have not got some of the information to hand but I will get it for the Deputy. On the question of the number of solicitors employed in each law centre, in Aston Place on 1 January 1985 they had three; Gardiner Street had four; Ormonde Quay had eight; Limerick had two; Waterford had three; Sligo had one; Cork had five; and Galway had two. It is intended to have one solicitor and one clerical assistant immediately in the new law centre in Cork. It will be a question of developing after that. There are already five solicitors in the existing law centre. The total vote is £1.372 million. The Deputy asked about the number of cases processed in each centre. I have not that information immediately to hand. I am sure it is available to the Legal Aid Board and I will get it for the Deputy. I do not think there was any other point.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): It will wipe it out over a period of months. About two weeks is the waiting list in Cork at the moment. Two extra solicitors were supplied despite the embargo. They were appointed in late 1984. They are reducing the waiting list. This new law centre with an extra solicitor will mean that the service in Cork will be very good indeed.
Mr. S. Walsh: I was pleased to hear the Minister say he is granting a free legal aid centre for Tallaght. When will this  centre open? Can he tell us the exact location of the office? I am somewhat disappointed that the Minister has not established a community law centre in the Tallaght area. There have been numerous representations about that.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): The decision taken by the Government is that the money is now available to the Legal Aid Board and they can go ahead immediately with the Tallaght centre and the other centres I mentioned. It is a question of the Legal Aid Board getting a premises. I understand they have a premises in mind. They will be employing two solicitors and clerical assistance. It is an administrative matter now and it is up to the Legal Aid Board to put it into effect. The money is there under the funds of suitors and can be drawn on immediately they make their arrangements. It should be done very quickly.
There is one point which is relevant to Cork. I saw a number of eyebrows raised about the number of solicitors in Cork. In a large area like Cork or Dublin you need more than one centre. Frequently both sides of the house are involved in the case. It can be inappropriate to have the same office representing both husband and wife in family law cases. In Cork the other spouse had to go to Waterford for representation. Even a small unit with one solicitor provides representation for the other party in a family law case. This eases the position considerably.
Mr. Wallace: I welcome the setting up of the second law centre in Cork. The Minister said there were five solicitors in the existing centre. I am sure he is aware that one of them has been out sick for over 12 months. In actual fact, only four solicitors are operating in the law centre in the North Mall. I am disappointed that only one solicitor will be operating in the new centre. I do not see any immediate improvement. They are understaffed at the moment. The Minister mentioned a delay of three or four weeks, but there are major delays in Cork and many complaints.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): The extra solicitor will make a big difference. I have provided an extra law centre for Cork. An extra Circuit Court judge is going down there. I will be opening three Garda barracks down there shortly. If this goes on I will have to stand in Cork.
Proinsias De Rossa: Arising out of the Minister's reference to the filling of the vacancies, can he indicate what the position is following the filling of one vacancy in Dublin? How many vacancies still exist in the Dublin centres? In reply to my question about the funds of suitors' money, is he saying none of that is available for the Coolock Community Law Centre?
Proinsias De Rossa: I will start again. In reply to my last supplementary the Minister said one vacancy in Dublin has been filled. Can he tell us how many vacancies still remain to be filled in the existing Dublin legal aid centres? Can he clarify whether any of the funds of suitors' money can be made available for the Coolock Community Law Centre?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I can give the Deputy the information by giving him general statistics. I will start on 1 January 1981 and take it up to 1 January 1985. There were four solicitors in Aston Place and now there are three because of the embargo. In Gardiner Street they started with three and have gone up to four. Ormonde Quay did not start until 1 January 1983. They started with eight and still have eight. It is working out pretty much on par. They are one down in Aston Place and they are one up in Gardiner Street from their start up position. I will continue to assess the position and, without breaching the principle of the embargo, fill the vacancies. Coolock will not be funded from the Legal Aid Board. Money from the funds of suitors is being provided to the Legal Aid Board. I  understand from the Minister for Social Welfare that he will continue to provide grant aid to the Coolock law centre. I hope it will continue in operation because it does good work.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): This House and the other House decided on the disposition of the money which accrued to the funds of suitors. It was decided that the residue of the funds would be used largely for civil legal aid centres. The outstanding item which I cannot quantify is the Children's Court in Dublin. That is out to tender and when a contractor is appointed I will be able to give an accurate account of the amount of money involved. I know at least £450,000 was involved for the initial ones. The remainder of the residue will be used for Dundalk, Portlaoise, Castlebar and Letterkenny. I would think it will be at the end of 1985 or early in 1986.
Mr. Hyland: Does the Minister agree that delay in dealing with family law cases can militate against the settlement of such cases? He admits that there have been some delays up to now. In relation to the proposed expansion of the scheme, can the Minister assure the House that there  will be no unnecessary delay in dealing with family law cases? I welcome the decision to locate an office in Portlaoise. Can the Minister give us any time scale for the establishment of that office? What will the staffing level be in that office?
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): On the question of delays, in family law cases if an appointment is made too quickly it might militate against the settlement of a case. Sometimes problems go away if people have to wait a fortnight for an appointment. That is another aspect of it. I do not mean to be facetious.
The expansion suggested will certainly cut down the waiting period to what one would expect if one were making an appointment privately with a solicitor. Obviously none of us can waltz into a solicitor's office and see him on the spot. We would make an appointment. That is the kind of situation I envisage. As regards Portlaoise, that will be the second phase of the expansion — Dundalk, Portlaoise, Castlebar and Letterkenny. It is envisaged that there will be one solicitor and one clerical assistant in the centre initially.
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