Access to Justice Conference: ‘ Civil Legal Aid Review: An Opportunity to develop a model system in Ireland’.

12th July 2023

Access to Justice Conference: ‘ Civil Legal Aid Review: An Opportunity to develop a model system in Ireland’.

Read The Report

(A detailed report outlining the speeches delivered and issues explored during the panel discussions at the 2023 conference of the Chief Justice’s Working Group on  ‘Access to Justice Conference’, has been compiled and presented to the Minister for Justice at the legal Aid Board in Montague Court today – attached here along with the remarks of the Chief Justice, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, and those of the CEO of the Legal Aid board).


Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell recalled at the presentation of the report Access to Justice Conference: ‘ Civil Legal Aid Review: An Opportunity to develop a model system in Ireland’. That John Henry Wigmore, Dean of North-Western Law School in Chicago said one hundred years ago, that the State had been in the business of justice long before it got into the business of education or health. 

The Chief Justice said that “if we think of Greek or Roman society for example, or even Brehon society, each recognised that the provision of a system of civilised dispute resolution was an essential function of any state unit because it helps to avoid discontent, self-help solutions and strife, and instead promotes civic cohesion”.   

He said it is instructive to compare the present health budget with the legal aid budget.  The health budget is approx. €23.4bn and due to overrun, while the budget for legal aid is approx. €50m”. 

Whilst not suggesting an equivalence he pointed to access to health being based on ability to pay, voluntary bodies, charities or insurance, before the Health Act of 1970. He said “this is an instructive comparison if we consider the picture today where legal aid is only available on restricted grounds, subject to unrealistic means test thresholds, and provided by an under-resourced and over-stretched organisation.  People receive assistance from voluntary groups, from some admirable charities, and from the long tradition of goodwill within the professions, but many others are sometimes driven to resort to self-help or fall into the clutches of those outside the legal professions offering deceptively cheap and simple solutions, or simply suffer in silence”. 

The Chief Justice said that “the challenge must be to improve every aspect of the system of provision of legal advice and assistance.  The Working Group has recognised from the outset that this is a multi-factorial problem, with no simple or easy solution, but that this year’s conference heard that provision of legal assistance can be preventative and that “many problems can be headed off, and the people who suffer significant legal issues are also those who suffer social deprivation and experience many health problems”.

He said that perhaps an unintended benefit of our civil legal aid system was “the establishment of law centres in local communities in largely disadvantaged communities, where lawyers had never previously been seen.  That may provide a model that with some vision, energy, commitment, and favourable economic conditions can be built upon”.  

The Chief Justice said that if the Law Centres of the Legal Aid Board did not exist, then “I think very many people would find themselves in the position of those with serious health problems in the late 19th or early to mid-20th century, where access to advice was a matter of luck and where many – if not most people – simply suffered in silence.  It is a mark of a civilised society that their voices be heard and their problems addressed.  The Legal Aid Board at the moment can only deal with a small portion of the demand for legal services, but the work that they do, in sometimes difficult circumstances, is very valuable and also gives us some picture of the scope of the demand which is not being met at the moment”. 

Receiving the Report the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said

“I am determined to drive the significant reform needed to deliver access to justice for all. At the Conference early this year we announced our plan to dramatically increase the number of judges following publication of the report of the Judicial Planning Working Group and appointments have already begun. 

I know how important these appointments are. We all know the benefits they will bring: a faster, more effective justice system; more cases being heard promptly and shorter waiting times. Judicial numbers and resourcing are key to facilitating greater access to justice. 

We will complement these new appointments by ensuring adequate support staff and accommodation are in place across the courts estate. Linked to this step change in resourcing is the important work underway to modernise how our courts operate, deliver on the Family Justice Strategy and the Review Group on Administration of Civil Justice.

I am also pleased to note the progress being made on the review of civil legal aid. The review group is now considering the results of a comprehensive multi-phased process of consultation. They are also examining how legal needs are met in other jurisdictions. I look forward to receiving the group’s report later this year.”

Joan Crawford, Chief Executive of the Legal Aid Board said at the presentation that “essential maintenance is required for the administration of justice through the improvement of the civil legal aid scheme.  The civil legal aid system is a significant component of any system of access to justice, and the Review of the Civil Legal Aid Scheme is part of a broader civil justice reform programme being spearheaded by the Minister. However, I would echo the views of the Chief Justice, who noted at the conference, that it should not be assumed that the pace of reform is a matter in the sole control of administrators or even legislators.  The input of many of the people and the organisations represented in this room will be crucial to the success of programmes of reform of the justice system”