Legal aid for people with disabilities in Ireland has been a long-term issue.
The Irish Government has not yet funded legal aid for those with disabilities for over 30 years.
But it is slowly starting to change its approach and it is now providing funding to those with a disability.
In a recent case, a woman with cerebral palsy who was found to be in an induced coma after she was injured by a hit-and-run driver was able to apply for legal aid.
In 2017, the State funded the Legal Aid and Assistance Commission (LAACC) to pay for the legal fees of the woman’s lawyers.
But the Government has also been funding a new initiative called the Legal Action Network (LAN) to support people with a mental health condition.
This new initiative will see funding from the State increase from €2,200 to €3,500 per year, with the money to be shared between people with mental health conditions and legal aid organisations.
As part of this new funding, the LAACC will be able to issue guidance to the State’s Disability Advocate (DAN) on how best to spend the funds.
“It is the first time that the State has funded a legal aid programme specifically for people who have a mental illness,” said John McNamara from the LAN.
“There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done on behalf of people with dementia, and a significant number of people are on a waiting list for the first of these services.”
Legal aid is a key part of the Government’s efforts to support the legal system for people of all ages, but there are still a number of gaps in the system.
“One of the key challenges in helping people with intellectual disabilities is to have access to lawyers,” said Mr McNamara.
“I think it’s important that people have access in a legal sense.
We are looking at ways of improving the legal assistance that we have to offer, and we’re looking at increasing the amount of money that can be spent on that.”
The LAAACC will be providing support for people to get their cases heard and to have their rights recognised.
This is something the State does not currently do.
“We know that people with cognitive impairments are a large group, and they need access to the legal systems, but they’re also often at a significant cost to the system,” said Brendan Byrne from the Legal Advice Centre of Ireland.
“So there is a very large gap in the legal aid system for a lot of people who need it, and there’s a lot that needs addressing to make sure that people in these circumstances are not left behind.”
A recent study found that the Irish Government spent just €9 million on legal aid in 2016.
While the Government is now supporting this increase, it is unclear how this money will be spent.
“The Government has a responsibility to ensure that legal aid is properly funded and used effectively and that those who need legal aid are able to access it,” said Dr Byrne.
“For that reason, I would urge the Government to continue to fund this important and innovative legal aid scheme.”