Thursday, 3 May 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cosgrave: I welcome the Minister to the House. Even though this is not his direct area of responsibility, I urge him to convey my concerns to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Given his professional background, I am sure the Minister for Foreign Affairs will have some sympathy with the matter I raise.
The legal and other staff in the law centre in Upper Mount Street, which has operated successfully for some time, are concerned at the proposed relocation of the centre to the Smithfield area. The staff are particularly concerned that the centre's clients, who come primarily from the south Dublin area extending into Bray – Ringsend, Dún Laoghaire, Sallynoggin, Stillorgan, Loughlinstown and Shankill, will be greatly inconvenienced. The next closest law centre to Bray is located in Wicklow town but this would not be as easily accessible by public transport as the Upper Mount Street centre. While there are other centres in Dublin, many of the centre's clients, given their circumstances and means, rely on the DART and other forms of public transport to get to the law centre at Upper Mount Street.
The location of these law centres should be examined to ascertain whether they are based in the most appropriate locations. In reply to a Member of the Dáil during the week, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated that one of the reasons for the proposed relocation was the tripling of the rent on the premises which made it uneconomical for the centre to remain in its current location. It seems crazy to approach these issues from a financial viewpoint rather than consideration for the welfare of the 800 people who attend the centre annually. It will create significant difficulties if people have to travel on the DART to Connolly or Tara Street stations and onwards to Smithfield. The Minister stated that the proposed location is readily accessible by public transport and is close to the proposed Luas line. The people attending the centres will, hopefully, have solved their problems by the time Luas is in situ.The argument that the new premises are located close to the courts does not stand up to scrutiny as law centres are also located in Finglas and Blanchardstown. If no compelling argument  can be made for the relocation, we should not try to change something which has worked well to date. I understand the Legal Aid Board received a substantial increase in the Vote of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which has increased astronomically. The Department should focus on facilitating the general public rather than on ways to save a few pounds. The matter should be reviewed as many people will be inconvenienced if the relocation proceeds.
I do not think a definite case has been made for the relocation. Some of the people working in the centre would not be overly upset at having to move premises but the move would cause difficulties for the clients. It will not be easy for some to get off at Tara Street or Pearse Street and try to get to Smithfield. The area is not readily served by public transport. I ask the Minister to take this matter on board and bring these points to the attention of his colleague. I hope he will be in a position to respond positively to the matter.
Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): As the Senator said, I will respond to this Adjournment debate on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I will relay the Senator's points to the Minister, although, from my perusal of my response to the debate, I do not think they have been conceded. Nevertheless, I undertake to bring the Senator's representations on the matter to the Minister's attention.
On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, who cannot be present, I thank the Senator for raising the matter and giving the Minister an opportunity to update the House on the issue. The Senator will be aware that, in accordance with the provisions of the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995, the Legal Aid Board is independent in the exercise of its functions. In particular, section 30 of the Act provides that responsibility for determining how legal services should be provided is solely a matter for the Legal Aid Board. Its responsibility in this regard includes decisions in relation to the location of law centres. The Minister has asked me to make it clear that the decision in relation to the relocation of the Mount Street law centre was a matter solely for the Legal Aid Board and was taken by the board in accordance with its mandate.
The Senator may be aware that the Mount Street premises was the original head office for the Legal Aid Board and was retained by the board as a law centre when, arising out of an increase in staff numbers, its head office moved to its current location in St. Stephen's Green House. A staff of ten, including five solicitors and five support staff, remained in Mount Street. The Minister is sure the Senator will appreciate that, in accordance with good public service management practice, the Legal Aid Board keeps the operation of its law centre network under constant review.
The aim of the board is to ensure legal services are available to the greatest possible number eli gible for them under the Civil Legal Aid Act. In this context, it is a matter for the board to ensure cases are processed as quickly as possible; to ensure people receive a legal remedy to their problem without undue delay; and to make legal services available to applicants within a reasonable time. The efficiency of the total package the Legal Aid Board can provide for a client must, therefore, be the overall determining factor in this regard.
Senators will be aware that over 90% of the board's caseload falls in the area of family law. The legal remedy available in such cases is provided through the courts. When the time spent at court consulting with barristers, adjournments, interim applications, etc, is taken into account, it emerges that a significant portion of the time taken to resolve a case, by both client and solicitor, is spent at court, not in the law centre. Senators will also appreciate that, in the light of this, the client has to travel to the court venue.
The relocation of the Mount Street centre to the Smithfield address, close to the courts, should considerably improve ease of access to the courts for clients and solicitors from the Mount Street centre. Senators will appreciate that, where a law centre is remote from the court, a solicitor can spend a large portion of his or her time travelling to and from the court. In modern day traffic conditions, the amount of time involved can be considerable. If the law centre is close to the court, the solicitor will spend less time travelling and should have more time to deal with a greater number of clients. This would be particularly the case when the court adjourns a case to a later time. The time saved would enable the solicitor to deal with other work in the law centre. This should contribute to an improved throughput of cases and reduce the amount of time applicants to the law centre have to wait for legal services.
The Minister has been informed by the board that a recent review of the rental charge for the Mount Street premises – Senator Cosgrave referred to this aspect – which sought the tripling of the rent, added some urgency to the Legal Aid Board's consideration of the feasibility of continuing to maintain a law centre at this location. The quality of service it was able to provide for clients from this centre was also a factor. While the board is conscious that the relocation may cause a degree of inconvenience to some of its clients currently served by the law centre in Mount Street, it also has to be conscious of its fundamental obligation to provide an efficient, cost effective and timely legal service for all its clients, including those awaiting first appointments.
 When the board acquired a property for the Refugee Legal Service in the Smithfield area, which has sufficient space to also accommodate the staff of the Mount Street law centre, the board took the decision to relocate the Mount Street staff, taking into consideration the overall advantages for clients identified by the board as accruing from such a relocation. The advantages include improved efficiency in the operation of the law centre and, notwithstanding the travelling inconvenience involved, a better service for those who would normally seek services from the Mount Street law centre.
The board has advised that the Smithfield premises, which is new and purpose built, will offer much improved facilities to clients, particularly in terms of assess for older and-or disabled people and those with young children. The new premises is also readily accessible by public transport and close to the proposed Luas line. The Minister has been assured that the board will endeavour to minimise the impact of the relocation of the law centre on its clients.
The Minister has also asked me to inform the House that the Legal Aid Board operates a private practitioner scheme. The use of private practitioners is particularly beneficial in cases of geographical remoteness, conflict of interest cases and cases where the exigencies of the law centre service so require. Applicants are given the option of either going to a private solicitor of their choice from the panel of private practitioners or having their names added to the waiting list at the law centre. The Minister has been informed by the board that there are solicitors from the south city and south county areas on the panel.
The scheme is intended to assist the board in its efforts to provide a service for all applicants within a reasonable period. It provides a complementary legal service to that provided from law centres, particularly for certain family law matters in the District Court, namely, domestic violence, maintenance and custody and access cases. The Minister has also asked me to inform the House that he recently obtained sanction to extend the scheme to include cases in the Circuit Court.
The Minister has asked me to indicate that under the terms of the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995, an applicant for legal services may apply to any law centre in the State, regardless of his or her home address. In this regard, law centres serve no particular catchment area and applicants from the greater Dublin area may apply for legal services at any of the Dublin law centres convenient to them.
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