The Cost of Justice

High legal fees are locking people out of the courts system.

If someone needs legal services, it can mean paying thousands of euros, and the exact cost generally can’t be predicted in advance.

For example, if you want to hire a solicitor for a divorce they will refuse to tell you how much it will all cost because they don’t know. Lawyers charge an hourly rate. If they make a phone call, write a letter, peruse a case file, do research or witness a statement the lawyers will charge for this, all before anyone steps foot inside a courtroom.

The difficulty of the case depends on whether there are assets that need to be discovered and valued, children who need custody arrangements, or maintenance payments where one spouse earns significantly more than the other. It also depends whether the case is contested.

Given that hourly rates are invariably more than €100, this process can mean a bill in the thousands.

Most people don’t have that much money sitting around. It can mean being forced to drop the case, self-representation in court or getting into debt to pay your legal fees. The threat of legal action alone is often enough to bully people into settlements.

Chances are most people will need legal help at some point in their lives. Apart from general legal transactions like registering a will or buying a house, you can’t predict when you might be illegally evicted, unfairly dismissed, run over by a reckless driver or be unable to pay your debts.

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How to help domestic violence victims

Fixing our legal aid system is the first step to ending the vicious cycle of violence.

Legal aid “significantly lowers the incidence of domestic violence.” That’s according to an extensive 2003 study in the US.

Economists Farmer & Tiefenthaler took an unprecedented look at how increasing social service provision affected the frequency of domestic violence during the 1990s. They found that increasing social service programs reduced the likelihood of abuse. However, no measure was more effective than the availability of legal aid, including shelters and emergency helplines.

Because legal services help women with practical matters (such as protective orders, custody, and child support) they appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.

Another 2012 study from Alvarez & Marsal found an even more significant result; since intimate partner violence is a pattern of repetitive behaviour, a successful legal intervention avoids 1.76 incidents over the twelve months following the intervention.

Despite the importance of legal help for domestic violence survivors, access still remains an issue. Approximately half of the clients Women’s Aid support are eligible for legal aid and, of those who apply, 75% receive legal aid. This leaves over 60% of women with no access to legally aided representation.

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Three strikes and you’re out: A look at the proposed changes to the legal aid system

Reducing access to criminal legal aid could give criminals grounds for appeal.

“€35,000 in legal aid but no compensation for Corcoran family” the Independent proclaimed in the aftermath of the Tipperary raid case last October.

The case involved seven Dublin men driving to Tipperary, breaking into the Corcoran family home, and brutally beating father Mark Corcoran in front of his children. The ring leader, Dean Byrne, had 120 previous convictions.

The case came to be the symbol of a new type of crime; gangs using motorways to rob country homes and farms. Many were also shocked by the cruelty of the robbers in this case. The fact that the men were out of prison to begin with, having over 315 previous convictions between them, only added to the outrage.

The Corcoran family lost everything. Under the weight of medical expenses and post-traumatic stress disorder, the family were forced to close their once successful business.

Meanwhile, the criminals responsible were afforded free legal aid, including two barristers and a solicitor.

Victim’s rights NGO ‘Support After Crime’ criticised this award of legal aid and called on the Government to put a cap on the amount of legal aid that can be given.

More recently, TDs expressed outrage that their colleague Paul Murphy was able to qualify for free legal aid on a €87,000 a year salary. Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell described it as a “crime against the taxpayer”.

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Why Access to Justice Matters

If you took a poll of people on the street and asked them if access to justice was important, the overwhelming majority would probably say yes. But ‘access to justice’ is one of those ideals that we take as a given, like democracy or freedom of expression, without really thinking about what it means in practice and how it should be implemented.

One of the most visible aspects of the right to access justice is the court system. This could vary from getting compensation from the person who crashed into you while driving, to holding the government to account through judicial review. Without access to the courts it is often difficult or impossible to ensure that your rights are being upheld.

However, the right to access the courts does not just include a literal right to bring a case. Access remains an issue if you are unable to understand the court system or adequately represent yourself during your court case. This is why the right to access the courts is often indivisible from the right to legal representation.

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