A better and more comprehensive system of legal aid, as well as securing the availability of legal aid for cases where none is available, is required to begin to meet the scale of unmet legal need in Ireland. That’s according to FLAC, which welcomed President of Ireland Michael D Higgins to its new head office at Dorset Street Upper in Dublin 1 to officially open the new facility.
The opening coincides with FLAC’s 50th anniversary, which it will mark throughout 2019. FLAC was established in Dublin in 1969 by law students David Byrne, Denis McCullough, Vivian Lavan and Ian Candy, who were looking to use their legal knowledge to provide advice and information to those who could not afford the fees involved.
In his address on Monday 25 February, President Higgins paid tribute to FLAC's work promoting universal access to legal aid. He said: “We know that a right to justice is fundamental to human rights protection, a primary element of an individual’s entitlement as an equal citizen of any state. It is simply not acceptable, in a state that claims to be a democracy, that the most vulnerable section of our society is unable to access our legal system or is prevented from doing so in a timely manner. That is a situation which damages the very fabric of our society, entrenching and exacerbating inequality. At the very roots of democracy lies a respect for all citizens and a refusal to foster a culture of privilege and advantage for those who can afford it. If we are to achieve a Republic in its fullest sense, both institutional and experiential, it must be founded on a profound spirit of generous humanity and a necessary inclusiveness.”
“It is such a spirit that led to the establishment of FLAC fifty years ago and has seen it grow and develop to an organisation that today provides legal advice and information directly through sixty-six clinics across the country. The demand for FLAC’s services continues to increase and I was most impressed to learn that, in 2018, you provided legal information or advice to 25,238 members of the public.”
Chairperson of FLAC, Peter Ward SC said: “We are particularly pleased that President Michael D Higgins has kindly agreed to open our new offices. President Higgins has made inclusion and the achievement of equality one of the core tenets of his Presidency. These are values that FLAC shares and have been at the heart of our 50 years of championing legal aid and are foundational in our ongoing work to achieve equal access to justice.”
“The move to the new FLAC building, situated on the site of the birthplace of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey, has been facilitated by the generous support of Atlantic Philanthropies. It provides an opportunity for FLAC to be a centre of legal innovation and creativity, to celebrate FLAC’s achievements, history and vision for the future.”
Since its establishment, FLAC has used strategic litigation to effect change. Last year it dealt with over 25,000 requests for legal information and advice to its telephone information line and advice clinics. Housing and homelessness have continued to dominate its recent case load, with other issues such as privacy emerging. It is also concerned about access to justice for disadvantaged groups, such as members of the Traveller and Roma communities, and it is seeking to make the courts more accessible for people with disabilities and lay litigants.
Speaking at the opening, Chief Executive of FLAC, Eilis Barry said: “FLAC marks its 50th anniversary this year and 50 years on access to justice is still unattainable for some groups and individuals in our society. Access to justice includes access to the courts, which are an essential part of democracy and the rule of law and the Courts and the Legal Aid Board need to be adequately resourced.”
“We are proud of the work that FLAC and its squad of volunteers have done for the last 50 years in seeking to establish a comprehensive system of civil legal aid. However, our staff and volunteers cannot begin to meet the current legal need we encounter on a daily basis.”
“The scale of unmet legal need we encounter shows that we need a better and more comprehensive system of legal aid, with shorter waiting times, improvements to the means test and more realistic allowances. We also need to fill the current gaps in the system: at the moment there is no legal aid for employment/equality claims before the Workplace Relations Commission, no matter how complex the issue is or how vulnerable the claimant may be. We also have been advocating to ensure that legal aid is available for people facing evictions from their family homes.”
FLAC’s 50th anniversary celebrations will continue throughout the year, including a conference on access to justice in May. Details of future events will be announced closer to the time.
Click here for the audio from President Michael D Higgin’s speech