“It is my great pleasure as Chair of Mercy Law to be here today at A&L Goodbody for the launch of Housing Rights and Homelessness-Lessons from a Pro Bono Partnership-Impact of Pandemic and Beyond. This is a very timely occasion as homelessness statistics again reach a new high of 12,259 and the need for inter-agency collaboration has never been greater. This ensures qualitative analysis of available information, measured commentary, and vital policy advocacy.
Over the course of the past 5 years Focus Ireland, Mercy Law and A&L Goodbody have fashioned a truly remarkable model of legal assistance service. This is a true collaboration of organisational vision and specialist skillsets having at its centre the delivery of housing rights to people at risk of or who are already homeless. I mention the vision of Eamonn Conlon at the time the partnership was set up in harnessing the energies of a great law firm for this purpose. In her thoughtful introductory comments to the Report Eilis Barry (CEO of FLAC) emphasises how legal problems disproportionately effect disadvantaged groups and individuals and the cumulative effect of legal problems which exacerbate disadvantage. The 8 case studies in this Report graphically highlight the multiple legal problems that are faced by so many of our clients. It is an understatement to say that troubles travel in pairs. Inter-agency collaboration enables the opportunity for a person’s full set of needs to be identified and to the extent possible met through our three organisations. Focus Ireland, A&L and Mercy Law are there in support of each other at every step along the way in vindication of legal rights. Where necessary, other sources of support are identified, and referrals are made. Access to information and good legal advice at the time it is required is the cornerstone of a service model that aims to deliver meaningful access to justice.
Collaboration was a central element in the vision of the Sisters of Mercy when they identified the need for a specialist housing law advice agency back in 2009. In assembling the first Board of Mercy Law the Sisters brought together people with deep immersion in Crosscare, Community Law and Mediation and Citizen’s Information to harness a culture and vision of a rights based caring community supporting people in homelessness. We owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude to the Sisters of Mercy for their dedication of personnel and funding to Mercy Law over the past 14 years. Two of our founding directors Professor Gerry Whyte and Ciara McGrath (Crosscare) have been the embodiment of that collaboration through to the present day.
This Report tells us the story of the past 3 years which produced human challenges beyond anything experienced in many generations. It tells the story of the adaptation of the Clinic to Covid and its migration to remote provision. It shows an expansion of services throughout Ireland during the Covid period and the continuing evolution of service to meet the needs of our service users. For sure, the Clinic will not look the same in 5 years’ time but has built into its workings a human capacity that ensures adaptability as need requires. Each of our organisations individually have internally replicated this adaptation.
The core necessity is that the disadvantage experienced by people in or at risk of homelessness in accessing their legal rights is overcome by the proximity of service to their needs. On a weekly basis Focus identifies service users whom it believes may be in need of legal support and makes appropriate referrals to the A&L solicitors at the Clinic, overseen by Mercy Law. A&L applies itself with the same quality of service and competence that is the hallmark of the firm and ensures that clients’ legal needs are met with competent advice and skilled advocacy. Mercy Law has been proud to deliver training and support in the area of housing law to A&L and continues to assist with training needs, albeit A&L, led by Eithne Lynch has developed its own internal housing law capacity over the lifetime of the clinic. Over 230 people in the firm are now trained in the highly specialised area of housing law. This is a staggering achievement and highlights the leadership and sense of commitment that exists within A&L to this partnership. In turn its personal value to A&L practitioners is reflected in the testimonies that accompany the 8 case histories highlighted in the report. These 8 case histories are selected from over 500 clients whose needs have been attended to over the past 5 years.
It is striking that in none of these cases has the recourse of bringing a judicial review to hearing been needed. Skilled advocacy and negotiation have ensured just outcomes against the backdrop of legal empowerment. The focus of the Clinic and of Mercy Law is upon holding public authorities to account in the discharge of their housing functions. Mercy Law also carries a training vision to assist in capacity building at the front line where local authority officials meet the public.
I wish to thank very specially the great team at Focus Ireland led in relation to this Clinic by Nicola Stewart. I am delighted that Alison Doyle a key case worker is also with us today to speak to the service. Mercy Law and Focus owe a huge debt of gratitude to Eithne Lynch and Amy Martin in their steerage of the housing clinic as part of A&L’s pro bono vision. I thank all in Focus who are assisting in making this Clinic such a success and above all I thank the individual practitioners at A&L who have truly made this Clinic an exemplar of all that is best in the traditions of the solicitors’ profession. I also thank our friend and colleagues at the Bar without whom our legal threats could ring hollow. Knowing that you are at our back enables this clinic to thrive.
Finally, I thank our own dedicated team at Mercy Law, led by Aoife, our managing solicitor, our solicitors Paul and Adam, our administrator Nuala Monaghan, our financial controller Miriam Nally and our Communications Officer Siobhan Tracey for their great commitment to the vital work of Mercy Law.