Dáil Éireann - Volume 499 - 04 February, 1999

Written Answers. - Legal Aid Services.

34. Mr. Stagg asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps, if any, being taken to provide additional resources for the legal aid system in view of the fact that some clients have to wait almost two years for an appointment to see a solicitor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3037/99]

41. Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the progress made in cutting the waiting list of free legal aid centres; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3063/99]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I propose to take Questions Nos. 34 and 41 together.

As Minister with responsibility for the Legal Aid Board, I am aware of the demands on its services. In consultation with the board I continually monitor the position with regard to waiting times at the law centres operated by the Legal Aid Board. I am aware that waiting times in some law centres are continuing to increase, notwithstanding the allocation of significant additional resources. Where waiting times, for whatever reasons, become excessive the position is examined by the board with a view to taking remedial action.

[1506] The Legal Aid Board has operated a private practitioners scheme in the Dublin area on a pilot basis for some years. I understand that the board intends to extend the scheme on a nation-wide basis in the coming months. The private practitioners scheme provides a complementary legal service to that which is already available from the law centres. The expansion nation-wide of the private practitioners scheme should increase the throughput of legally aided cases and also enable the law centres to devote more resources towards non District Court matters.

The board operates a policy of providing a priority service in a range of issues which include domestic violence, child care and child abduction. A substantial number of appointments are given each month on a priority basis. For example, 1,879 of the 8,722 appointments offered in law centres in 1998 were for priority matters. None of those accorded priority were put on waiting lists. In the Dublin area, 911 appointments were offered through the private practitioner scheme operated by the Legal Aid Board in 1998.

In order to combat the increase in waiting times, I made additional resources available to the Legal Aid Board in 1998 and again in 1999. I increased the grant-in-aid by 15 per cent in 1998 to £9.615 million and I am further increasing the allocation this year. In consultation with the Minister for Finance, I am reviewing the Legal Aid Board's estimate for 1999 which stands at £10.953 million at present. I hope to substantially increase this amount prior to the publication of the 1999 Revised Estimates for Public Services later this month. In addition, a further allocation of £1 million is being allocated for legal services for asylum seekers bringing the total current allocation to £11.953 million, an increase of 24 per cent over last year.

Last July I approved 25 additional posts for the Legal Aid Board. Of these, 17 posts, including five solicitor posts, were for law centres. In addition, I sanctioned the making permanent of six temporary staff, including three relief solicitors. The board, which has sanction for 89 solicitor posts, currently employs 86 solicitors. A competition is currently under way to fill the remaining three posts and the board is confident it will have its full compliment of 89 solicitors in place shortly. I believe that these allocations should help to alleviate the situation with regard to waiting times in the law centres.