Family issues dominate legal help calls

Nine per cent fewer people sought help from the legal rights group FLAC in Westmeath last year than the year before, according to its annual report, but family, employment and money worries continue to dominate the agenda.

Westmeath FLAC opens twice a month in Athlone and Mullingar, in partnership with the Citizen Information Board. Volunteer legal advisors in the centres are rostered under the auspices of the local Citizens Information Service, and the centres are free, confidential and open to all (FLAC stands for Free Legal Advice Centres).

Its director general Noeline Blackwell said the figures for 2012 show there is a fundamental need in Irish society for accessible legal information and advice for individuals, and for fairer systems that allow people to access their rights across a wide range of issues.

“It was a milestone year for FLAC where after years of campaigning to reform personal debt law, we finally saw the passage of personal insolvency legislation, its many flaws notwithstanding.”

“In 2012, FLAC was proud of the fact that we helped thousands of people one-to-one through our advice and information services.

From those contacts and our work with other organisations, we know that people are worried sick and afraid about basic issues. They do not see the law as protecting them despite its central role in their lives.”

FLAC’s statistics, showing 25,450 people accessing its phone line and centres in 2012, indicate that family issues, employment problems and money worries continue to dominate the agenda, constituting about half of all of its enquiries nationally.

However, some areas of law have seen increased queries, such as housing/landlord and tenant law.

The phenomenon of the ‘accidental landlord’ has been noted by FLAC – people who have had to rent out their homes to meet rising mortgage payments or invested as pension provision.
They do not have the same resources as ‘professional’ landlords nor the funds to get necessary legal information and advice.

The report recognises the work of volunteer lawyers in offering legal advice in free and confidential centres all over Ireland, in partnership with Citizens Information Centres.

It also showcases the strong performance of its Public Interest Law Alliance project, which FLAC says has broken new ground in galvanising a structured pro bono culture in Ireland among lawyers and campaigning organisations alike.

“In its work, FLAC seeks to recognise and remedy where people are being excluded from accessing essential systems that they need to live their lives in dignity,” concluded Ms Blackwell. “So we will continue to campaign for reform of the social welfare appeals system, for recognition of transgender identity, for a stronger consumer voice in legal structures around personal credit and debt, and for proper, timely access to legal information and advice for people who need it.”



FLAC has two free legal advice centres in Westmeath that are open twice a month, one in Athlone and one in Mullingar (see 

In 2012 there was a drop in callers to our Westmeath centres of almost 9% from the previous year. Family law remained the top area of enquiry at 49% all queries. Credit and debt law queries came second at 12% of callers, up almost 10% on 2011 figures. Property and land law was next at 8% of queries, an increase of 15% over the previous year’s figures. Wills/power of attorney queries comprised 8% of callers.

The state Legal Aid Board has one Law Centre in Athlone. As of December 2012, there were 169 people waiting for their first appointment with a solicitor and the average waiting time for an appointment was 10 months. In May 2013, there were 149 people waiting for their first appointment and the average waiting time had risen to 11 months.