Better debt settlement 'needed'
An independent, out-of-court debt settlement structure is needed to keep struggling mortgage holders in their homes, a human rights group has said.
More than 26,000 people contacted the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac) for information and assistance throughout 2011.
Director-general Noeline Blackwell revealed an increase in debt problems intersecting with issues in other areas of law such as family, employment and housing.
"Flac has focused on reforming laws around personal debt because we have seen the terrible impact of over-indebtedness on people contacting us, having dealt some 83,000 legal queries since the start of 2008," she said.
"We have kept it simple. We need an independent, out-of-court debt settlement structure that will examine people's personal debt in a holistic way and where possible aim to keep people in their homes."
Almost 13,000 people called the helpline in 2011, up 39% on 2010, with concerns about credit and debt, neighbour disputes, negligence/personal injury and contract law. Another 13,300 people visited legal advice centres around the country, up 22%.
Ms Blackwell, who paid tribute to the 700 solicitors and barristers at the centres who volunteer their time for free, warned that the Government needs first to understand the "justice gap" in Ireland before it can properly reform legal services in a way that truly widens access to justice for all.
While Justice Minister Alan Shatter, a trained solicitor, understands the need to have more people access law, she said there are elements missing from the proposed Legal Services Reform Bill, such as a better-funded state legal aid system and a focus on making the courts more accessible.
"Ultimately our work in 2011 has been about making support systems fairer, more transparent and more robust," she said. "Our society, including these support systems and every aspects of people's daily lives, is based on the rule of law.
"Any person can end up fully reliant on outside support, in circumstances beyond his or her control, and it is therefore in everyone's interest to make all our systems respect basic human rights and decency, especially in recessionary times."