Mercy Law Resource Centre (MLRC) presented to members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on Wednesday 11 December 2019. MLRC welcomed the focus of the Committee on access to justice, and raised a range of concerns in relation to the barriers that exist to vulnerable individuals accessing legal advice and representation, MLRC highlighted the absolute dearth in free and accessible legal aid provision on housing and homeless matters and the difficulties this presents to vulnerable individuals. Alongside the statement made by MLRC Managing Solicitor Rebecca Keatinge accompanied by MLRC Solicitor Paul Dornan, the Committee heard statements from Professor Gerry Whyte, and Rose Wall Chief Executive Officer of Community Law and Mediation (CLM).
Before the Committee, MLRC Managing Solicitor said that access to justice encompasses effective availability of the following services: access to legal information; timely advice and remedies; accessible legal representation; access to conflict resolution services; and access to the court system and a fair system of remedies. MLRC Managing Solicitor noted that the primary challenge for any individual with a potential legal issue is access to legal advice and information in the first instance. The Committee was advised that any of the vulnerable groups and individuals MLRC engages with would struggle to access legal advice in the absence of our service, let alone access to the court system.
MLRC Managing Solicitor advocated to the Committee for greater support of the community law centre model, as operated by Mercy Law Resource Centre and other independent law centres. Such a model as adhered to by MLRC enables access to justice in the following ways: operation of legal outreach clinics ensuring such advice is embedded in the community and is accessible; free legal representation for marginalised groups; legal support to professionals and community organisations who are supporting homeless people, promotion of resolution of legal issues without the need for legal intervention; delivery of formal training on housing law to community groups and interested professionals; and active engagement in law reform and policy change.
The impactful and much-needed work of MLRC was put forward to the Committee as evidence that a community law centre model can facilitate meaningful and real access to justice for all. Reference was also made to the recognition of the Chief Justice, at a recent MLRC event, of the “vital role” that dedicated, community-oriented groups, such as MLRC, are providing that would not be provided in any other way.
MLRC Managing Solicitor highlighted the vital role for access to justice in the housing sphere. In this regard, MLRC Managing Solicitor brought the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing to the Committee, quoting the Rapporteur:
“Violations of the right to housing are as much failures in the administration of justice as they are failures of housing programmes. If those living in inadequate housing and in homelessness have no access to justice, they are deprived of agency to bring violations to light, to address root causes or ensure appropriate responses. They are unable to challenge the policy choices and decisions that created the conditions in which they live.”
MLRC Managing Solicitor also raised concerns in relation to the current deficiencies of the civil legal aid scheme, highlighting in particular the following concerns:
- That there appears to be a statutory limitation on provision of legal advice and representation by the Board on housing and homelessness matters, if they are categories as ‘disputes over land’;
- That the level of legal aid provision on housing and homeless matters currently delivered by the Legal Aid Board is negligible – out of 17.803 cases handled by the Legal Aid Board in 2018, 257 related to ‘property’;
- That the Legal Aid Board is not empowered and resourced to disseminate legal information and to have a community presence and outreach service, all of which are features of access to justice;
- That the Board does not have any role in law reform or policy;
- That substantial delay in accessing advice present a further practical barrier in accessing justice through the Civil Legal Aid scheme. Often clients facing homelessness require a nimble service that can proactively reach out to local authorities in order to negotiate solutions. This is not achievable if clients are required to wait weeks and months to meet with a solicitor.
MLRC Managing Solicitor also commented on the particular difficulties faced by lay litigants. That a disproportionate number of those facing homelessness are migrants and those from ethnic minorities was highlighted together with the particular challenges faced by individuals who have literacy issues or a disability. All these vulnerable groups encounter challenges engaging with the court system.
By way of conclusion, MLRC Managing Solicitor spoke positively about the emerging and growing role of pro bono in Ireland and highlighted the positive impact of the pro bono housing law project that MLRC is engaged in together with A&L Goodbody and Focus Ireland. MLRC Managing Solicitor concluded by welcoming such pro bono initiatives but called for the focus of any discussion of access to justice to be on community-based and properly resourced legal advice and representation to vulnerable groups.
MLRC’s full statement to the Committee is available here.