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Legal aid should be available in employment appeals cases: FLAC

The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) has used events around its 50th anniversary to call on the government to extend the areas in which legal aid can be granted, including employment appeals cases.

FLAC’s new office at 85/86 Dorset Street Upper in Dublin 1 will be officially opened this afternoon by President Michael D Higgins, who will unveil a ceremonial plaque in what is the first in a series of events this year to mark FLAC’s 50th anniversary.

That run makes FLAC one of the country's oldest civil society organisations, but its chief executive, Eilis Barry, said there were still sections in society who arguably do not have the required access to legal advice, referring to people with disabilities, the Travelling Community and those from the Roma community.

"I would see more targetted services [needed] for people with particular disadvantages," Ms Barry said.

One area where free legal aid cannot be provided is in employment cases, with FLAC having made a submission to government with an amendment that would change a situation described by Ms Barry as one where "the interim has become permanent".

She said the Minister responsible could create a statutory instrument which would mean bodies such as the Workplace Relations Commission would be deemed designated bodies, permitting free legal advice services to be granted.

Ms Barry also said that anyone facing eviction from a family home should also get free legal advice if required, while FLAC has been running pilot schemes targeting the Travelling and Roma communities.

Approximately 25,000 people contact FLAC each year for free basic legal advice and among them are people who, Ms Barry said, were struggling to stay in their homes because of the current housing crisis.

"In our experience you may have someone in with a family law or debt problem, but if you add homelessness to the mix it creates far more problems," she said.

She added that if such cases were dealt with "in a holistic way", it could mean that ensuring adequate accommodation would in turn help the person to stay in work and thereby address their debt issues.

She also said some of the calls either to its Dublin office or via the FLAC phoneline were from people struggling to navigate the courts system - something that is currently being scrutinised under a review of the administration of civil justice. Another developing area is that of data, with FLAC playing a role in a current case involving the Data Protection Commissioner relating to the transfer of data to the United States of America by Facebook.

FLAC operates around the country thanks to the efforts of around 600 people, while Ms Barry said there had been a recent growth in the number of law firms engaging in pro bono work under FLAC's Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA) network.

As for FLAC's work over the past half-century, Ms Barry said: "It is using the law over time to bring about change."

The new office has been secured with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, but Ms Barry said FLAC did face financial challenges in relation to its core funding and would need to talk to government and other funders to ensure it can continue to provide the full range of services to those who need them.