Thursday, 7 December 1995
Seanad Éireann Debate
An Cathaoirleach: This is a Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil and, in accordance with Standing Order 82, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question “That the Bill be received for Final Consideration”, the Minister may explain the purposes of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments. As Members are aware, they may speak only once on this question.
Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): I apologise for the absence of my colleague, the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, who is involved in urgent Government business in relation to the Estimates. I am very pleased to have the opportunity of taking this Stage of the Bill on his behalf.
On 15 June 1995 this House passed the Civil Legal Aid Bill, following which it was debated in Dáil Éireann. In the course of the debate in the other House a total of 27 amendments were made to the Bill as passed by this House and I now wish to report on behalf of the Minister to the House on such amendments.
Amendment No. 1 is a minor drafting amendment and involves the use of capital letters in the reference to the chief executive in the section. Amendment No. 2 is again a technical amendment which is intended to ensure that solicitors are classed as officers of the board once they have been designated as civil servants in the Civil Service of the State. Amendment No. 3 to section 4 (4) (e) provides that the Minister may remove a member of the board from office. In the Bill as passed by the Seanad the power to remove was without any express conditions attaching to it, although the principle of fair procedures would of course have applied. Amendment No. 3 provides expressly the circumstances in which the Minister may remove a member of the board from office. The amendment is along the lines of similar powers given to Ministers to remove members from State boards.
Amendment No. 4 is again a technical amendment. Section 7(1) of the Bill empowers the Minister to issue, by order, general policy directives in relation to legal aid and advice to the board and the board must comply with such directives. Under section 7(3) of the Bill which was passed by the House it was provided that
Nothing in the section [that is to say section 7] shall be construed as  enabling the Minister to exercise any power or control in relation to any particular case with which the board is or maybe concerned.
Mrs. McGennis: I am not familiar with the procedure in regard to amendments on this Stage, but would it not be a little more helpful if we dealt with each amendment in turn, rather than going through them all together?
Mr. M. Higgins: I will try to be of as much assistance as possible. If Senators want me to go slower I will. The issue of ministerial policy directives is at present provided for in paragraph 226 of the existing scheme of civil legal aid and advice. Over the years of the board's operation it has been necessary for successive Ministers with responsibility for the Legal Aid Board to give policy directives to the board, all of which have in one form or another helped to clarify positions for the board where necessary. In many cases the directives were of direct benefit to legally aided persons. I think it important that a Minister has power to make policy directives. There are precedents in other legislation and there is no reason whatever to depart from precedent in this case.
It may be suggested that for a Minister to have such power will enable him or her to interfere with the independence of the board in its day to day dealings with individual cases and that is certainly not the intention. Section 7 (3) makes that absolutely clear. The amendment makes the point even more clear.
In summary, most of the amendments I have spoken on so far have been technical.  One other dimension has been that of ensuring the autonomy of the board, clearing the boundary of ministerial interference and the third dimension which I have discussed is those circumstances in which the policy directives of Ministers can satisfactorily find their way without interfering with the operation of the board. The great majority of the early amendments were technical.
Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 7 are technical amendments. Amendment No. 5 to section 11 makes provision for designation by ministerial order that the staff of law centres be civil servants of the State. Following consultation with staff representatives this section is in line with similar legislation where the establishment of a board on a statutory basis is concerned. The purpose of amendment No. 5 is to make clear that solicitors appointed after the date of the ministerial order provided for in section 11 also shall be civil servants of the State. The purpose of this amendment is to manage the transition.
Section 11 provides for the appointment of staff of the board and provides, inter alia, that staff currently employed by the board be made civil servants of the State. It also provides that staff currently employed by the board who are not civil servants may be made civil servants of the State should they so wish. To ensure an orderly transition of the board from administrative to statutory status and to ensure that the board retains the highly experienced and capable staff that it has at present, the board and the Minister's Department, in consultation with the Department of Finance, engaged in a long series of meetings with the trade unions representing solicitors and administrative staff. As a result of those meetings detailed provisions acceptable to all parties have been agreed. The framework of these agreements is contained in section 11 of the Bill.
Amendment No. 8 is again a technical amendment, as is amendment No. 9. Amendment No. 9 enables the board to provide legal aid in respect of a conveyancing  matter connected to a matter for which legal aid or advice has already been granted. The only effect of amendment No. 9 is to make similar provision in so far as the giving of legal advice is concerned. The amendment helps to remove any doubt that may arise on the matter.
Section 26 of the Bill sets out criteria for the grant of legal aid. It specifies the circumstances under which legal aid may be granted and it reflects generally what is contained in the scheme of civil legal aid and advice as its stands now. Section 28 (6) of the Bill provides that the board may require a person to whom it has granted a legal aid certificate to comply with such requirements as it reasonably considers expedient to enable it to satisfy itself that it is reasonable for the person to continue to receive legal aid. The effect of amendment No. 10 is to make similar provision in so far as the giving of legal advice where the board is concerned. It also enables the board to cease the grant of legal advice where the applicant fails to comply with requirements, in particular the requirements which are specified in section 29 and in any regulations which might be made under section 37.
Article 177 of the Treaty establishing the European Community provides that the European Court of Justice may give preliminary rulings concerning the interpretation of the Treaty. Any court or tribunal of a member state may, if it considers a decision on a question is necessary to enable it to give judgment, request the European Court of Justice to give a ruling under Article 177 of the Treaty. Amendment No. 11 makes clear that legal aid will apply where there are proceedings before the European Court of Justice arising out of a reference made to that court by any of our courts or a tribunal in accordance with the provisions of Article 177 of the Treaty.
Amendment No. 12 is a technical amendment. It is intended to improve the wording of section 28 (1). As the subsection was originally framed, there is the remote possibility that it requires an individual to have already been  granted a legal certificate before he or she can qualify to obtain one. The amendment helps to remove the possibility of any such perverse interpretation of the subsection.
Amendment No. 13 is a technical amendment to section 28(2). It makes clear that the granting of a legal aid certificate by the Legal Aid Board shall be subject to section 24 as well as the other sections referred to in the subsection. Section 24 sets out the general criteria for the granting of legal aid.
Amendment No. 14 provides for the insertion of a new subsection in section 28. The new subsection makes clear that the board may revoke a legal aid certificate under certain conditions which are specified in the subsection. The conditions in particular are those specified in section 29 and in any regulations under section 37 concerning financial eligibility.
Amendment No. 15 deals with section 28(8), which sets out a number of matters in respect of which legal aid shall not be granted by the Legal Aid Board. One of the matters referred to is debt collection. The effect of amendment No. 15 is to provide that in all proceedings involving debt collection, legal aid may be granted subject to the normal criteria for granting legal aid.
Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 will have the combined effect of enabling the board to provide legal aid and advice to engaged and cohabiting couples in respect of disputes concerning rights and interests in or over land. The board is not empowered to do so under the schemes that stand and this has left it helpless to assist in respect of disputes which may be of major importance to those individuals concerned including, perhaps, children.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 are minor drafting amendments concerning punctuation. Amendment No. 20 is a technical drafting amendment, only it makes clear that information which can be got from law centres by the Legal Aid Board under section 32 may include information in any form. It may, for example, be in computer form. The  information will enable the board to discharge its function in so far as finance, personnel and general administration are concerned.
Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are minor drafting amendments. Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 25 are technical amendments. Section 33(6) as it stands provides that the Legal Aid Board shall be entitled to recover costs incurred by it in providing legal aid and advice. The costs may be determined by the board. In the case of legal aid, the costs may be measured by the court or tribunal in accordance with section 34 of the Bill or taxed in accordance with any rules of a court or tribunal. In the case of legal advice, the costs may be measured by the Taxing Master as solicitor and client costs.
Amendment No. 24 is the main amendment. It provides that in default of agreement between the board and the client, costs in respect of both legal aid and advice may be measured by either the Taxing Master or the court or tribunal concerned as may be appropriate, in the same way as if no party was in receipt of legal aid or advice and all the parties had respectfully obtained the services of a solicitor, barrister or both at their own expense. The measurement of costs by the court or tribunal are in accordance with the rules of any of the court or tribunal. Amendments Nos. 23 and 25 flow as consequential amendments.
Mrs. McGennis: Many of these amendments are technical in nature and I would not be fully conversant with the reasons as to their necessity. However, we attempted to put many amendments into the legislation during its passage through the House. While we were successful in having it amended, unfortunately that decision was reversed by the Minister at a later stage.
Some of our amendments attempted to expand the membership of the board but section 4 did not take them on board. It appears the Minister's amendment is simply technical in nature and does not refer to any of the members of the board, which is a pity. If the Minister had taken our amendment on board, he would have had a better board composition. To have the board simply consisting of legal practitioners is a wrong decision. The decision to put civil legal aid on a statutory footing gave much scope to the Minister to do many innovative things but he missed the opportunity to do that in many instances. Putting a member of the Combat Poverty Agency or the users of  the service on the board would have been a good idea. It is a shame, now this Bill is to become law, that——
Mrs. McGennis: I accept what you are saying, Sir, but it is a technicality for the Minister to bring this part of the legislation before us because little or nothing can be achieved by us. We are also restricted to what is before us.
Can the Minister tell me what is meant by the amendment to section 27? The amendments we tabled to this section attempted to give people access to civil legal aid in specific circumstances. What exactly is intended by amendment No. 11? The Minister may have described it appropriately and accurately but I found it difficult to grasp much of what he said.
If I understood him correctly, amendment No. 14 means the board can decide, having granted civil legal aid, to discontinue it if the financial circumstances of the person change. Is that legally possible or appropriate? If I have been granted a civil legal aid certificate at the time I undertake a legal action, surely I should be entitled to pursue that action as long as it takes? Regardless of a change in one's financial circumstances, there is scope within the legislation to apportion costs, or to make a charge after the completion of the action where a civil legal certificate aid has been granted. The legislation provides for the possibility that the board may put a charge on whatever services it provides. Would this not be better than discontinuing eligibility for civil legal aid, as provided for by amendment No. 14?
 With regard to section 28, the amendments the Minister has mentioned do not take on board the kind of extension to the service we were seeking. Amendment No. 16 allows for cohabiting couples to avail of services. Is this a technical amendment? I was not aware that they were prohibited from being represented by virtue of the fact that they were cohabiting couples. The amendments to section 29 are technical. It is unfortunate that none of the very positive proposals put to the Minister have been taken on board in any of these amendments.
As there is not the scope to make the kind of comments I thought it was possible to make, I can only say that it is a pity that we did not get the kind of legislation we hoped for when the Bill was initiated in the House. As it appears that most of the amendments the Minister has introduced are technical, I will simply note what has been brought before us.
Mr. Neville: I am glad the Bill is to become law. It has been debated over a long period in the House. The Minister has introduced an amendment regarding the autonomy of the board. It is important that the board be free, as it sees it, to operate in the best interest of its clients, the people who need free legal aid. It is also important that the board has the freedom to develop the service because, as debated at length in the House, it is necessary to develop the service in many areas and this costs money. The amendment to give more autonomy to the board gives the opportunity and the incentive to the board to develop itself and not be looking over its shoulder at its political masters.
However, the amendment on policy directives qualifies, to an extent, the autonomy of the board but it is important that those who pay for free legal advice — £6.2 million in 1995 — have an input into the way the board is developing. The piper who pays must call some of the tune but, as amendment No. 1 makes clear, it does not call all of the tune; there is a balance between this  and what the Minister can influence by way of policy directives to ensure that this does not interfere too much in the autonomy of the board.
These two amendments are, therefore, complementary. It is important that both the Minister and the board itself looks towards developing the service. The amendment ensuring that the Civil Legal Aid Board is in a position to give legal advice is a development of this theme. We discussed this at length on Second Stage. The development of the board should be such as to ensure that it can give the full range of legal advice, from writing letters to bringing cases into court, and that it is fully inclusive of all the services that are required by people involved in the civil legal aid area.
This area was discussed on Second Stage and an amendment was passed to extend legal aid to areas of social welfare, the employment appeals tribunal and to the labour area. This would have cost approximately £20 million at the time but I understand from previous debates that this can be done and that the area of legal advice can be developed by way of ministerial order at a later stage.
As the European Courts are increasingly involved in Irish law, it is important that legal aid be available to people who are obliged to bring cases and defend themselves in the European Court. This is dealt with by amendment No. 11. Amendment No. 6 deals with staff who are to be civil servants. This issue is discussed whenever we are changing a voluntary body into a statutory body. This happened when we were discussing the milk board approximately 18 months ago; this is a similar amendment in that it seeks to ensure that there is an ease of transfer of the staff from what one would now regard as the private voluntary area to become employees of the State.
Amendment No. 15 deals with the debt collection included in legal aid. The fact that this provision is available is welcome. It complements what we  said earlier with regard to legal advice and the autonomy of the board. It is a development of the service available under the civil legal aid scheme. The common theme in many of the substantive amendments is the development of, and an opportunity to develop and improve, the service of the board and to improve the areas in which the Legal Aid Board can assist its clients, people of modest means. I welcome the amendments.
Mr. Daly: The Minister proposes amendments to section 10 regarding the chief executive. The chief executive is defined in the definitions section — section 1. I am at a loss to understand why this amendment is necessary. What is its purpose given that the role of the chief executive is clearly defined under the section and under section 1? In the absence of the chief executive, the person can nominate staff to undertake the functions of the chief executive and the board can authorise staff to undertake work of the chief executive when the chief executive is not available. There is nothing to say that any of the staff who may be appointed, either by the board or the chief executive, will be suitably qualified to carry out the work.
The position of chief executive is very important. The main function of the board is centred around the work of the chief executive. He or she whoever they may be may decide to put somebody into his or her position in their absence, but such person may not be suitably qualified. The section should be amended to ensure that suitably qualified staff would be appointed and not somebody who may be, for example, a clerical assistant or, perhaps, an usher. There is nothing in the section to say that the person nominated by the chief executive or the board would be suitably qualified to carry out the work. This is essential.
Mr. Daly: It deals with capital letters and small letters; it is minor and technical. However, what is more important is what the chief executive will be doing. If the chief executive is appointing somebody, the least we can expect is that the person being appointed will be suitably qualified.
I wish to discuss amendment No. 10. During earlier Stages of the Bill we sought to make the provisions of this legislation applicable to employment tribunals and so forth. We had some success in having such bodies included. However, they were removed again and that has restricted the power of the boards to deal with and provide legal aid for some of the matters for which we believe legal aid is necessary. I am not convinced that what the Minister is proposing will not further unduly restrict the provisions and the authority of the Legal Aid Board to give legal advice in certain cases. Could the Minister indicate if this amendment was introduced by the Minister or by somebody else? This amendment appears to give the Minister wide powers to restrict legal advice in cases where there might be a  difference of opinion as to whether legal advice should be continued or not. This would unduly restrict the board.
There was also a discussion about the establishment of law centres throughout the country. I suggested that the headquarters for the chief executive and the board should be located outside Dublin. It is necessary to discontinue the practice of locating headquarters of bodies such as these in the city. That is in line with Government decentralisation policy. There is provision in the Bill for the board to establish centres at different locations throughout the country but there is no provision about where the headquarters of the board should be located. It is an important office and it would be in keeping with Government decentralisation policy if it were located outside Dublin. I am sure the Minister who is present would be favourably disposed to having it located in Ennis.
The Minister has made amendments to section 32 which could change the original objective of the section quite substantially. What is the Minister's intention here? With regard to the provision of information in these cases, much if not all of the information is sensitive and confidential in nature. We should ensure that such information cannot be passed on to unauthorised people, but under the Minister's amendments there is the capacity to have information provided to people who might be unauthorised. Can we prevent that?
I have no difficulty with the amendments except that in some respects they restrict the availability of legal advice to people who might be entitled to it and, second, they might unduly provide information on sensitive and confidential matters to people who would be unauthorised to have such information. The effect of the Minister's amendment to section 32 might be to provide an opportunity for unauthorised people to get confidential and sensitive information about cases. It would be most undesirable if that were to happen.
Ms Honan: I welcome the Minister. I had expected the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, and I was looking forward to congratulating him on the passing of the divorce referendum. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Higgins, will pass on my good wishes.
This Bill was debated at great length in this House. We presumed we had passed the Bill but obviously there were technical amendments made to it in the other House. I presume these amendments will improve or clarify some matters that were still unclear when the Bill left this House. I had some reservations about the Bill but I am pleased that the Civil Legal Aid Board has been put on a statutory footing. I support the amendments.
Many of the amendments are technical. I welcome amendment No. 9. Legal advice can now be given in relation to conveyancing matters on which legal aid had already been given. That had to be clarified. Amendment No. 12 relates to section 28. The fact that a person might have to get a legal aid certificate before they could prove that they were entitled to one was of some concern to us earlier and this amendment clarifies that. I also welcome amendment No. 17 under which free legal aid is available for disputes about the rights and interests of cohabiting couples in land or property. That is important because children are involved in many of these cases.
All our concerns have been gone through in great detail. All of us accept the need to place the board on a statutory basis. In view of the large number of family law cases that are dealt with by the Civil Legal Aid Board, we welcome the increase in the number of offices that have been opened around the country and the increased funding the Government has allocated for this service. The scale of marital breakdown was discussed during the divorce referendum campaign and it is most important that the board is placed on a statutory basis.
We appreciate the work the Minister and his officials have done in bringing this Bill before the House. I am glad the  Bill will be passed and I hope the board will be successful in the many challenges that lie ahead of it. We hope——
Ms Honan: I am sorry, I did not realise that. I welcome and support the amendments. They are technical amendments and there is no point in going over old ground that was debated at great length in the House. I accept that much of what we sought is not in the Bill but I support what is in it.
Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): Senator McGennis raised queries about amendments Nos. 11, 14, 16 and 17. I am bound by the rules of this House to confine my remarks to the amendments as tabled. This falls heavily on me and it must be a great burden to the Senators who have spoken.
Amendment No. 14 deals with the revocation of legal aid certificates. If somebody acquired an immense amount of resources, by for example winning the lotto, they could pay for the case or the certificate could be revoked. The amendment takes account of the position of people who might be able to finance their own actions. They would be given the option of hiring their own solicitors or paying the board the costs involved.
I thank Senator Neville for this thoughtful comments about amendments Nos. 6 and 11. He spoke about a balance which must be struck. The  board, which is being put on a statutory footing, enjoys an autonomy which could be construed as independence with responsibility. This is the essence of the Senator's comment. If one law centre had a large block of arrears and another centre was not under strain, the Minister could make an order providing for the two centres to be regarded as one until the backlog of arrears had been cleared. I am satisfied that the right balance has been struck between the necessary autonomy of the board and the right of the Minister and the Government to articulate policy.
Senator Daly suggested that the Minister could interfere with the board. Amendment No. 4 specifically seeks to achieve the opposite because it prevents the Minister from interfering in individual cases. The Senator raised a point about information. It is the Legal Aid Board rather than the Minister which may collect information from legal aid centres. Amendment No. 20 deals with the flow of information from the centres to the board and not to the Minister. The Bill establishes a distance between the board, which acts autonomously, and the Minister, who is responsible to the Government.
Senator Honan spoke on amendments Nos. 9, 12 and 17. She concluded by ceding the principle that she had no real or philosophical difficulty with what the Seanad wanted but was not contained in the Bill. Amendment No. 9 removes the remotely possible perverse interpretation with which I have already dealt in my opening remarks. Amendment No. 12 is technical and we are not in disagreement about it. The combined effect of amendments Nos. 16 and 17 is to take account of engaged and cohabiting couples in respect of disputes. It enables the statutory board to deal with areas with which the board as presently constituted cannot deal.
Mrs. McGennis: This is an important Bill. The Minister for Equality and Law Reform is at a meeting dealing with the Estimates and I hope this goes well for him. The success of this and all other legislation depends on the necessary finance being provided. On Second Stage the Minister pointed out that £6.2 million had been provided in the 1995 Estimates for civil legal aid and that this was a 25 per cent increase. Even this modest improvement of putting the civil legal aid scheme on a statutory basis will require additional funding. I know the Minister will fight his case at the Estimates meeting this morning and I hope he will not give up until he is satisfied that he is given an appropriate financial allocation for his Department, which will have to carry a considerable burden in the next 12 months. On the basis of last year's increase, the Minister proposed additional law centres and staff and there is no doubt that he will require substantial additional funding from the Government to try to achieve the targets he set and indicated to the House when he introduced this Bill here.
In this Bill we are simply placing on a statutory basis a scheme which has operated since 1979. The Pringle report on civil legal aid listed a number of barriers which impede people from availing of existing private legal services. One barrier is the cost to the person using such services. This is why we have civil legal aid and I hope there will be improvements in the scheme when it becomes statutory. Another barrier is lack of information. Do people have sufficient information to know there is a legal remedy available? There is also a psychological barrier. Will people be able to use private services even though such services may be outside their experience? There may also be a geographical barrier. Is there a private service operating in a person's locality?
Recognising the barriers led the Pringle committee to state that although the cost barrier is the major one, the introduction of a legal aid scheme would not lead automatically to the removal of the  others. Each barrier would have to be dealt with and this is why the report stresses that a comprehensive legal aid and advisory service must be concerned with more than providing the public with the means of access to legal practitioners and the courts. That is the basis on which this legislation has fallen down.
During my Second Stage speech I quoted from a submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights about violence against women. It stated: “For there to be effective access to justice, legal services must include education to counter this lack of knowledge.” One of the things we tried to do during the passage of this Bill through the House was to break the barriers which the Pringle report identified.
Mrs. McGennis: I only want to note the Bill's shortcomings. I acknowledge the good work done by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, and the great improvements he has made in terms of funding and staff for civil legal aid. However, the Bill does not address the needs and the identified improvements which could have been put on a statutory basis. This legislation will not come before either Houses for a long time. It is a pity we did not take this opportunity to improve membership, access, eligibility and the other issues raised on Second Stage.
Mr. Neville: I welcome the Bill's passage through the House because it is important to put the Legal Aid Board on a statutory basis. I welcome the Minister's decision to introduce this Bill in the Seanad.
Natural justice determines that people have access to the courts and to legal advice regardless of their means. We should remember Mrs. Airey who created the springboard for the establishment  of civil legal aid in the State by taking her case to the European Court in 1979. She made it possible to put the Legal Aid Board on a statutory basis.
It is important that the service is all-inclusive. The Bill contains a provision to allow the Minister to extend the scope of legal aid by ministerial directive. Senator McGennis was concerned that an opportunity has been missed. However, the Bill allows services to be extended through ministerial order without having to come back to the Houses of the Oireachtas. That gives the Minister scope to develop civil legal aid, which was the theme of the discussions on Second Stage and on Committee Stage.
It is important that means are now tested on disposable, not gross incomes. As politicians, a lot of our work deals with means testing. The Bill puts the Legal Aid Board on a statutory basis and it will look at disposable income, that is, income after rent, mortgage, hire purchase and other allowances are taken into consideration. Means testing should be done on disposable, not gross incomes.
I congratulate the Government for increasing the contribution in 1995 for civil legal aid by 25 per cent, which brought it up to £6.2 million. I also congratulate the previous Government for increasing it in 1994. I congratulate the Minister for more than doubling the amount of money available for civil legal aid in the State. It is important to recognise the services and advice provided by the free legal aid centres, FLAC, on a voluntary basis.
The extension and improvement of civil legal aid will continue. Two years ago there were 16 civil legal aid centres in Ireland; today there are 26. We hope the introduction of this Bill will continue the momentum for the expansion of civil legal aid in terms of funding for the development of the service and the number of advice centres throughout the country. While most civil legal aid is directed towards family issues — 99 per cent of the funds available are used in the family law courts — people with  limited incomes must also be considered. Debt collection was mentioned today, but other areas were mentioned on Second Stage. We must ensure that areas other than family law issues are developed because those with limited incomes have a right to civil legal aid.
Ms Gallagher: We spend our time in both Houses of the Oireachtas bringing in laws which mean nothing to those who cannot afford them. That is why this is a crucial Bill. It is important, particularly since the passing of the divorce referendum, that people who need the law to protect them and enforce their rights have the financial means to use it. The Minister has worked hard to ensure that legal rights are accessible in this country. I congratulate him for establishing at least one legal centre in each county, which did not exist when I first entered the Seanad. By doing so, the Minister has ensured that those who require the assistance of the law are able to avail of it.
It is disingenuous of those on the other side of the House to say this is a missed opportunity when they had almost 20 years in Government, from when the Airey case was first taken, to introduce this Bill. I am pleased that a Labour Party Minister has delivered on this matter.
This Bill does more than just putting the board on a statutory footing. While that is important, the scheme has been improved, debt collection has been extended and one can now bring a case through the legal aid system to the European Court. The fact that law clerks may be apprenticed through the legal aid system and qualify as solicitors is another practical way of improving the board's morale. The board is happy that its concerns and work are now being recognised and facilitated in this legislation. It is important that the people in the system are happy with it and, from my experience of talking to those in the legal aid centres, that has been achieved.
 There are other areas such as the fact that we can now look at disposable income which is the only income available to people in determining whether they can go to court. That is a welcome provision. There have been many practical and comprehensive improvements in this legislation. The Minister has done the people a great service by introducing it, as he has with many other pieces of legislation which were put on the back burner by the Legislature for many years. They have now been addressed by the Minister, Deputy Taylor, who deserves to be complimented on it. I hope the Cabinet recognises his role in achieving a lot for many people at very little cost. He should be facilitated in that regard.
Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (Mr. M. Higgins): On Final Stage, I want to make some concluding comments on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor. Since the establishment of the Department of Equality and Law Reform just over two years ago and Deputy Taylor's taking over responsibility for the scheme of civil legal aid and advice, there have been a number of significant developments. At that time, just over two years ago, it was a scheme operated by the Legal Aid Board without sufficient staff or law centres and there were long waiting lists. In the meantime those problems have been eradicated by extra funds allowing for the doubling of staff numbers and law centres. Waiting lists now bear no comparison to those of earlier years. Staff are highly motivated and there is a new board, comprising a representative gender balance, operating under the chairmanship of Ms Clare Connellan, a solicitor who is also a skilled administrator.
For the first time the board includes two staff association representatives. The new board, law centres and staff are operating effectively and efficiently. There is an air of enthusiasm and no little excitement about a dynamic organisation that is gearing itself to the future.
 Senators McGennis, Neville and Gallagher spoke on Final Stage and I thank them for the warm regards they conveyed to the Minister, Deputy Taylor, for his work on this Bill. These remarks, which I am reading on his behalf, about the atmosphere which prevails in the law centres is based on the Minister's visits to these law centres and from his interaction with those who work in them. When I first knew the Minister, Deputy Taylor, long before he was a Deputy, he was providing legal advice. His commitment is shown in the achievement of this legislation and in the dedication of his departmental staff.
The Civil Legal Aid Bill is a landmark Bill which puts the scheme of civil legal aid and advice on a statutory basis while allowing at the same time some degree of flexibility to set out more specific details by means of regulation. The perception can now be that the board is not only permanent but is organised and being developed strategically to deal with the future and with the consequences of marriage breakdown. The Bill implements the Government's commitment to legal aid. Amendments have been made to the Bill during its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas, which as far as possible have taken into account the fine contributions made by Members of both Houses. I will convey to the Minister, Deputy Taylor, Senators' appreciation of the fact that this legislation was introduced in Seanad Éireann.
This Bill should be seen as part of a corpus of major family law legislation which has been initiated over a period of just two and a half years by the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, both in this Government and the previous one. On the basis of the Maintenance Act, 1994, the Family Law Act, 1995, the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1995, the Domestic Violence Bill, 1995, and the Civil Legal Aid Bill, 1995, we will have an updated code of family law to match that of any developed country. As I reel off the titles of these Bills one gets an idea of the corpus of family law  that is now in place. That code of legislation represents a Government which cares about people involved in marital breakdown. It is a response which society itself quite rightly expects from Government and which society will, frankly, be the better for.
On my own behalf and on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Taylor, I thank Senators for their support on this important Bill to establish the scheme of civil legal aid and advice on a statutory basis.
Beidh áthas orm an méid a dúradh ar an Céim Deiridh seo a chur in iúl don Aire, an Teachta Mervyn Taylor. Chomh maith leis sin, ba mhaith liom, ar a shon agus ar mo shon féin, buíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí a chabhraigh go mór leis an Bhille seo agus a raibh sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt di.
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