Dáil Éireann - Volume 523 - 05 October, 2000

Written Answers. - Legal Aid Service.

26. Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the proposals he has to improve the legal aid services for refugees and asylum seekers, having regard to the conclusions of the Law Society on the matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20173/00]

[1188] Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): The recommendations on the Refugee Legal Service were contained in a report on civil legal aid in Ireland published by the Family Law and Civil Legal Aid Committee of the Law Society in June 2000. These recommendations are being considered by my Department and the Legal Aid Board.

The Refugee Legal Service was established in February 1999 and provides a comprehensive and quality legal service to asylum seekers at all stages of the asylum process regardless of whether the application is dealt with substantively or as a manifestly unfounded application.

Legal services are provided by staff in the RLS and, in appeal cases, by private practitioners who are on a panel set up by the Legal Aid Board for this purpose.

Legal advice is available from the RLS for the initial completion of the asylum application questionnaire; preparation for the initial interview; attendance at the interview, if the Legal Aid Board considers that attendance is required; review of the interview notes after the interview; making of post interview submissions within the five day time limit; advising an applicant of the decision at first instance and of the options open to the applicant; immigration matters, including leave to remain; and deportation matters.

Legal aid is available for representation before the appeals authorities and judicial review at any stage of the process.

As regards judicial review, applications are regarded as priorities, and specific resources have been provided to deal with these cases and arrangements are being finalised to ensure that the board is in a position to provide services within the 14 day time period, including special arrangements for the holding of internal appeal committee meetings. Finally, I am assured by the board that it is satisfied that all relevant decisions on applications for legal aid can be taken in sufficient time so as to enable proceedings to be issued within the relevant time periods.

In addition, I am assured that all asylum cases are regarded as priorities and there are no waiting lists for legal services at the RLS.

Because of the serious consequences of decisions on refugee status for asylum seekers, all persons who seek legal advice for the initial process are provided with that advice, and all persons who seek legal aid for representation before the appeals authorities, are deemed to meet the merits criteria laid down in the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995.

In relation to resources being provided to the service, a figure of £1 million was provided on set up in 1999 and a very considerable increase is anticipated for 2001.

Additional staff are also being allocated to the RLS. From an original staff complement of 28 when the service was established in 1999, including seven solicitors, an additional 35 staff, including seven additional solicitors, were sanctioned in March 2000. Significant additional resources are [1189] being sought by my Department for the RLS at the present time as part of the Government's strategy to speed up the processing of asylum applications and to clear the existing number of applications on hands.

In relation to the private practitioners service, the Legal Aid Board uses private practitioners to provide legal aid in cases at the appeals stage. There are currently 35 solicitors on the panel which are based in various parts of the State. The fee paid under the scheme is currently under review. Salaried solicitors also provide services at all stages of the process.

Arising from the Government decision to disperse asylum seekers around the country, the board obtained additional staff so as to provide a dispersed Refugee Legal Service. Arrangements are under way for the setting up of sub offices of the Refugee Legal Service in Galway, Cork, Rosslare and Athlone. In addition, provision has been made for staff of the RLS to travel to dispersed locations.

I am sure the Deputy will agree that this reply illustrates the very significant service being provided by the RLS and the ongoing commitment by the Government to the development of that service to meet the ongoing needs of asylum seekers.