Decision to restrict legal aid for family law cases ‘potentially unconstitutional’



Seán Ó hUallacháin SC
Seán Ó hUallacháin SC

Leading lawyers have criticised the Legal Aid Board following its announcement that referrals to the family law panel of the Private Practitioner District Court Panel will be restricted to priority matters only.

The Council of The Bar of Ireland has said the decision will very negatively impact on those most in need of assistance and must be immediately reversed, while senior family law practitioner Seán Ó hUallacháin SC said it could “potentially impinge on parental and child constitutional rights”.

According to the Irish Independent, practitioners received a memo on Monday advising them of the decision and explaining that it was made because of “the need to control” the legal aid budget.

Paul McGarry, chairman of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, said: “The most vulnerable members of our society depend on the services of the Legal Aid Board for family law matters and, for that reason this unilateral decision to cut referrals to the family law panel of the Private Practitioner District Court Panel is alarming in the extreme.

“The Private Practitioner District Court Panel is designed to complement the service provided by Law Centres and with the Law Centres already stretched, this decision will lead to unacceptable delays for those seeking assistance with the most sensitive of family law matters and could potentially have very serious consequences.”

Mr Ó hUallacháin said: “Delays in dealing with access, guardianship and custody matters raise serious child protection concerns and could potentially impinge on parental and child constitutional rights.

“Delays in maintenance orders could put families at risk of homelessness and the already significant impact on waiting times of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 will undoubtedly be exacerbated.”

Mr McGarry added: “This move by the Legal Aid Board will result in an inefficient and inaccessible system, which is in direct contravention to the Board’s own mission to facilitate the effective resolution of civil disputes through the delivery of efficient and accessible legal aid.

“The Legal Aid Board are citing ‘financial and operational’ reasons for this unilateral decision, but this is frankly unacceptable. We have a duty to ensure that access to justice is delivered in a timely matter to all members of society and especially to the most vulnerable, there is no justification for this decision by the Legal Aid Board and it must be immediately reversed.”