Dáil Éireann - Volume 455 - 04 July, 1995

Written Answers. - Free Legal Aid Scheme.

80. Mrs. O'Rourke asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform the criteria for eligibility under the free legal aid scheme. [12295/95]

81. Mrs. O'Rourke asked the Minister for Equality and Law Reform if an individual for free legal aid as part of a wider community grouping can be considered. [12298/95]

Minister for Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Taylor): I propose to take Questions Nos. 80 and 81 together. In order to qualify for assistance under the scheme of civil legal aid and advice an applicant must satisfy two basic eligibility tests. The first of these is a means test, and the other is a merits test.

An applicant is eligible on financial grounds if his or her “disposable income” and “disposable capital” are within certain limits specified in the scheme. “Disposable income” is the income which remains when various deductions are made from gross income — “gross income” being defined as total income received from all sources. The deductions to be made from gross income, which are referred to as allowances, include for example, income tax, mortgage repayments, rent, social insurance, VHI contributions, expenses in travelling to and from work together with various allowances in respect of the applicant's spouse and dependent children. “Capital” includes, for example, money in the applicant's bank, credit union, building society or post office accounts, or the applicant's house, property or land and the aim under that [1032] heading is to find the value of the applicant's disposable capital which is its gross value, less for example, the cost of realising assets, outstanding loans, etc. Since in the vast majority of cases, applicants do not have significant capital resources, by and large, eligibility is determined by reference to income alone. While the income of a husband and wife are normally aggregated, they are treated separately when the parties are in conflict with each other, or where they are living separately and apart. The effect of this rule is that in a very high proportion of matrimonial cases, a wife will qualify for legal services, even if her husband is financially secure.

The merits test operates on the basis that legal aid may be granted only where the applicant has, as a matter of law, reasonable grounds for taking, defending or being a party to legal proceedings, and is reasonably likely to be successful in those proceedings.

In considering applications for legal aid in general, it is also necessary for the Legal Aid Board to have regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the probable cost of taking or defending the proceedings, measured against the likely benefit to the applicant. In effect, the purpose of the scheme is not to put the person of limited means in the position of the person for whom “money is no object” but in the position of the person whose means, while not over-abundant, are sufficient to cover essential legal services.

The various income eligibility limits are reviewed from time to time on the basis generally of increases in the consumer price index. The Civil Legal Aid Bill, 1995, which has been referred to the Select Committee on Legislation and Security, provides a statutory framework for the scheme. In the Second Stage debate I informed the House that I am increasing the various income limits. Details will be announced very shortly.

The scheme provides for the refusal of legal aid and advice where the application is made by, or on behalf of, a person in connection with proceedings in [1033] which numerous persons have the same interest. It may also be refused where the board is of the opinion that the application is not being made in the sole interests of the applicant or a member of his or her family or other person for whom the applicant has special responsibility but is of a kind commonly described as a test case.