The Head of Civil Operations of the Legal Aid Board was requested to attend the extension of an Interim Care Order (ICO) hearing, to advise the court as to what the policy of the Legal Aid Board was for prisoners applying for and receiving free legal aid. This was because the child’s father, who was in prison, had been unable to obtain free legal aid over a period of nearly four months and was unrepresented at two previous ICO hearings. It emerged during the hearing that the father had been unaware of avenues open to him to seek legal aid.
Because the father was unrepresented the two previous hearings had been adjourned and the Head of Civil Operations of the Legal Aid Board had been requested to give evidence regarding the Board’s policy and procedures in relation to prisoners.
The father attended this Interim Care Order hearing and was in fact represented by a Legal Aid Board solicitor. The director of the law centre where the solicitor practised also attended court, but was not required to give evidence as the father was now represented.
The Legal Aid Board solicitor told the court that the Legal Aid Board certificate had been in place since the previous Friday. While the judge acknowledged that the issue was largely dealt with, he requested the Head of Civil Operations of the Legal Aid Board to give evidence as to the procedure for prisoners applying for legal aid.
The solicitor for the HSE asked the head how a prisoner would obtain legal aid in prison. The head of Civil Operations told the court: “There are no specific procedures in relation to prisoners, the standard application process is that a person fills in a form and either sends it or delivers it to the law centre, a chaplain might send it to them. In terms of the contribution, the minimum is €10 for legal advice and €50 for legal aid.”
He said that both contributions could be waived, but there was no blanket waiver as such for any category of person, each waiver was made on an individual basis.
“The procedures could be more explicit for prisoners,” he acknowledged. “We would expect solicitors to go to the prison and see the prisoner in advance of the waiver being made, they would clarify their procedures very quickly to make it clear.” Therefore the prisoner would first have to pay the contribution in order for the Legal Aid Board solicitor to visit the prison.
The judge asked him: “In relation to the application for prisoners, (applications for legal aid in civil matters) there is no specific procedure in place. Is there any plan to put in place such a procedure?”
“We have no immediate plans, our standard process involves a fairly simplistic application form,” the head answered. The forms were available to chaplains, probation services and prison services. If the application was received concentrating specifically on Parts 3 and 4 of the Child Care Act, they would expect one of their solicitors to go the prison for a consultation.
The judge pointed out that the child’s father had been trying to access legal aid for many months.
The LAB Head of Civil Operations assured the court they would look at the shortcomings that gave rise to the delay so that it would not happen again. However there would be no public information provided by the Board in relation to accessing legal aid to address these shortcomings, he said. Prison chaplains and prison governors could provide that information.
“It might be worth considering making more public information available,” said the judge before thanking him for coming to court.
The Team Leader told the court that they had contacted the chaplain in the prison and sought support in seeking legal aid. The chaplain had told her he was always available to support prisoners, and went directly to the father to make him aware of that.