Most Social Welfare Appeals are Successful

Most appeals against refusal to provide social welfare payments are successful, recent data has revealed. In 60% of cases where social welfare is denied and the individual chooses to appeal, that appeal will ultimately prove successful.

The high success rate of social welfare appeals has been revealed through data contained in the Social Welfare Appeals Office’s latest annual report, which was published recently. The organisation, which is responsible for handling these appeals, revealed in its Annual Report 2015 that there were a total of 25,406 appeals made last year, of which 60% resulted in the original decision to refuse payments being successfully reversed.

The revelation has cast doubt over the integrity of the decision making process for social welfare payments. With the majority of appeals against refusals proving successful, some groups have questioned the grounds on which these refusals are being made in the first place.

Free Legal Advice Centere (FLAC), a specialist legal rights group, was one organisation to voice its concern about the figures. The Group’s policy officer, Ciarán Finlay, said that this is not the first time concerns about the social welfare decision-making process have arisen, and that the recent data could indeed potentially show that there is a problem with the way initial applications for social welfare are assessed.

Finlay said that, of the cases assessed last year, “In some 5,2000 cases, the original decision-makers in the Department of Social Protection revised their own initially negative decision, which represents more than 20% of all appeals decided in 2015.”

FLAC also said that more work had to be done to speed up processing times, though the organisation did recognise that the Appeals Office was making progress in this area. Last year, the average appeal processing time was 20.9 weeks, compared to 24.2 weeks in 2014. While FLAC welcomed the progress in appeal processing, the organisation also expressed the view that the handling of initial applications must be sped up.

According to Finlay: “We are particularly concerned by the average processing time of 18 weeks for appeals on Supplementary Welfare Allowance, a payment designed as a safety net for those with no income.”

Concerns over the number of negative decisions being reversed on appeal were previously expressed in June of last year by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee recommended that initial decisions in this area should be made logically and transparently, and suggested that additional training for decision makers may reduce the number of unsound negative decisions and the volume of appeals entering the courts.

400 Left Without Representation by Barrister Strike

Strike action by Northern Ireland’s barristers has left nearly 400 people without their professional legal representation. The strike forms part of the legal industry’s ongoing efforts to protest against significant cuts to legal aid.

The Bar Council of Northern Ireland has criticised the latest proposals for further cuts to legal aid. These cuts would, the Council said, represent a reduction of almost 50% compared to the levels that were originally set ten years ago in 2005.

In protest over these latest proposed cuts, and the effective cuts to pay for legal professionals, a number of Northern Ireland’s barristers along with a smaller number of solicitors are refusing to take on new work for criminal cases. A similar protest was previously held in May this year.

This action has affected 323 different cases, which have been unable to find professional legal representation as a result of the number of barristers who are now on strike. These cases involve 376 individual defendants, who have all seen their proceedings delayed as a result of the protest.

The Bar Council is launching a joint challenge along with the Law Society of Northern Ireland against the Department of Justice over the recent changes to the rules, which affect those providing legal representation for serious cases in the criminal courts. The High Court in Belfast recently launched a judicial review into these new rules.

Gerry McAlinden QC, chair of the Bar Council, said while discussing this challenge “The costs of ineffective criminal defence are significant. The conviction of an innocent person represents a tragedy for everyone.”

He continued: “The risk of miscarriages of justice is more apparent now than ever before due to legal aid cuts.”

However David Ford, the Justice Minister, vehemently defended the decision to slice the funds available for legal aid. He pointed out that Northern Ireland currently offers the highest level of funding to legal aid cases in the UK. Continuing to offer higher legal aid pay than the rest of the country, he said, was simply not sustainable.

McAlinden, however, insists that the decision to take action over the cuts is “not taken lightly by our profession.” Instead, he says, “it is our responsibility to uphold access to justice in the best interest of the public and preserve legal aid as an important social welfare provision for the most vulnerable.”

Cuts to funding for legal representation, he warned, could erode justice in Northern Ireland. “Legal representation cannot be repeatedly economised on while maintaining high standards for vulnerable clients,” he said.

Adoptees Could Gain Right to Access Birth Identities

Proposals from the Irish government could lead to the introduction of new legislation allowing those adopted in Ireland to access information about their identity at birth. For the first time, the proposed legislation would allow Irish adoptees to gain access to their birth certificates and the information it contains.

Currently, there is no legal right for those who have been brought up by adoptive parents to find out the name of their biological parents, nor the names they themselves were given at birth. Some adoptees will be able to access their birth certificates, but it is not an automatic right. Rather, the wishes of the parents are considered in deciding whether adoptees can access their birth certificates, and adoption agencies can refuse access on the basis that the parent objects to the certificate being granted.

If passed, the government’s proposed Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill could change this – subject to certain conditions. These conditions are designed to protect the “right to privacy” of the birth parents of adoptees. The proposals suggest that adopted people wishing to find out about their birth identity would first have to put their signature to a “statutory declaration.” Specifically, this would be a declaration stating that they would not make contact with their birth relatives without their biological parents giving their agreement in advance. Furthermore, adoptees would have to be aged 18 or over before requesting access to their birth certificate and benefiting from a legal right to obtain the information.

Where currently the wishes of the parents are essentially the deciding factor in granting access, the proposed new bill would introduce “a presumption in favour of disclosing information, in so far as is legally and constitutionally possible.”

A draft of the bill’s content was published at the start of this week by Dr James Reilly, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Dr Reilly admitted that the matter was a “complex” one and also recognised that it would be controversial in some ways, with some parties expressing concerns in the run-up to the draft bill’s publication. Nonetheless, he insisted that the government recognises the fact that “it is critical that birth parents’ constitutional right to privacy is protected.”

He continued: “I believe that by allowing birth parents an opportunity to specify the extent of contact, if any, in addition to the other safeguards to be put in place will ensure that this important right is protected.”

If the bill passes, the presumed right to access birth certificates will fully apply to those who were adopted before it came into effect. The government has proposed holding a major awareness campaign, lasting for twelve months, to publicise the changes made by the bill and give birth parents of adoptees plenty of time to register their wishes regarding contact.

Irish Solicitors Achieve World First for Gender Balance

The Irish solicitors profession has now reached a landmark situation in the area of gender balance. For the first time ever in the history of not just the Irish legal sector practising female solicitors outnumber their male counterparts. In an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated, this is being hailed as a major achievement.

Furthermore, this is currently believed to be an achievement that goes beyond Ireland’s legal sector. It is currently thought to be the first time that any national group of solicitors has included more female practicing members than male.

The landmark development was announced by Ken Murphy, the Law Society of Ireland’s Director General. It is based on figures for the end of 2014, at which time female practicing solicitors narrowly outnumbered their male peers for the first time.. “There were exactly 4,623 female practising solicitors and exactly 4,609 male practising solicitors,” Murphy said.

He continued: “It was just 92 years ago that the first woman solicitor was admitted to the profession. Since then the race to equality has been incredible.” Murphy was referring to Mary Dorothea Heron, who became Ireland’s first woman solicitor in 1923. Many other countries such as the UK only began appointing female solicitors at around the same time. Up until this time there had been no specific law or policy barring women from working as solicitors, but it had been taken as a matter of fact that women were not suitable for such a profession.

Murphy’s colleague at the Law Society of Ireland, Teri Kelly, also hailed this as a milestone. Kelly, who holds the post of Director of Representation and Member Services, said “To our knowledge, this is the first time a female majority has existed in any legal profession anywhere in the world.”

Since Mary Dorothea Heron became the first woman to qualify as a solicitor in Ireland over 90 years ago, a lot has changed within the Irish legal sector. Women have now for some time represented a significant section of Ireland’s legal industry, particularly within certain areas of legal practise. Furthermore, women are continuing to make progress towards equality within new areas of the sector. As Kelly points out, last year saw the appointment of Ireland’s first female Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan and, in the past few years, Ireland has also witnessed the appointment of:

  • The first female Director of Public Prosecutions, Claire Loftus
  • The first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Susan Denham
  • The first female Attorney General, Máire Whelan
  • The first female Chief State Solicitor, Eileen Creedon

“Women currently dominate the State’s senior appointments in law and justice,” said Kelly.

Sensitive Evidence Sees Public Excluded From Court

The trial of eight men from Dublin who are charged with membership of the IRA will see members of the public excluded from the courtroom. The Special Criminal Court has decided that no members of the public should be present when six people belonging to the Garda National Surveillance Unit (NSU) provide evidence for the trial.

The decision was reached by Mr Justice Paul Butler, on the grounds that both the identity of the witnesses and certain aspects of their evidence amounted to sensitive information that should not be made public. In particular, some of the evidence will include or allude to details of the NSU’s “tradecraft and methodology” and this, it was felt, should not be evidence made available for potential media publication.

Furthermore, Mr Justice Butler also felt that NSU members should not be named publicly in court, and this was also a strong reason for excluding the public from the courtroom during this part of the trial. The decision was reached by a non-jury court with three judges, with Mr Justice Butler presiding.

Perhaps the most key reason for the decision was concern for the safety of the NSU members. Det Supt Willie Johnson, who heads up the NSU, gave evidence to support the idea that if the names of those belonging to his unit were made public they could be in danger. The court ultimately decided that this was the case, and seemingly reached the decision to exclude the public from the courtroom for this reason in particular, though the sensitive nature of some of the evidence was also an important factor considered.

This is the second recent trial in which it has been decided that the public should not be allowed in the courtroom while certain evidence is given. A similar decision was made when NSU members gave evidence in the trial for the murder of republican dissident Peter Butterly, in which three suspects were tried in proceedings lasting 55 days.

The eight men currently being tried were reportedly arrested after a Gardaí descended on a business selling used cars on Good Friday 2013. According to Tara Burns, the counsel for the prosecution, officers found multiple incriminating items at this site including a Glock firearm, a baseball bat, pepper spray and balaclavas.

The men on trial range in age from 33 to 55, come from various areas within and outside Dublin. The trial is currently still ongoing.

Judge Calls for Second Opinion on Detained Teen

Judge Brendan Toale of the Dublin District Family Court has ordered that a second opinion be sought on the medical situation of a teenager who was detained in a mental health unit earlier this month. The judge pointed out that a second opinion would have been compulsory had the case involved an adult rather than a teenager, and said that he could “see no reason why children should be detained on a different regime to adults.”

In summary, the judge said that when a child is involuntarily detained in a psychiatric unit, as in this case, they should benefit from all the “checks and balances” that are put in place to protect adults. However, Toale was also satisfied that the teenager in question still needed treatment that he was unlikely to adequately receive in the community, and agreed to make the necessary order for his continued detention over the next three weeks while a second opinion is still being sought.

The teenager involved in the case suffers from depression. According to the psychiatrist overseeing treatment, the child has made noticeable improvements since originally being detained but currently is still not ready to be released into the community. In particular, he expressed concerns about his patient’s refusal to take necessary medication. All in all, his assessment was that the child was not able to give informed consent to a continued stay in hospital, but nonetheless an end to detention would carry the risk of undoing the progress that has been made through treatment so far.

Furthermore, the psychiatrist said that should the teenager still be in need of detention upon reaching the age of 18, arrangements would be made to transfer the patient into a suitable adult unit. There was, he said, no risk of the patient “falling between two stools” as, if a suitable bed in an adult unit could not be found, the patient would be able to remain in the current unit until a space became available.

An independent second opinion will be obtained in time for the next court date, at which point it will be factored into the decision on the matter of the teenager’s continued detention.

In a separate case, the judge also granted an emergency care order for a teenager who, in a hospital emergency unit, claimed that she would commit self-harm if she had to return home. The girl, who comes from a large family and has been left in the care of siblings, has suicidal ideation, has been self-harming for some time, and claims to feel “very unsafe at home,” according to her psychiatrist.

Judge Toale described his decision in this latter case as “the least worst solution” on the grounds that the girl was at risk if she returned home. The mother is apparently opposing the decision, according to her legal counsel.

First Minister Speaks Out on Attorney General’s “Unacceptable” Comments

John Larkin, the North’s attorney general, recently provoked controversy by suggesting that all investigation into killings related to the troubles up to April 1998 should cease. It has been claimed by First Minister Peter Robinson that he was within the “terms and conditions of his contract” when making these remarks, but there are also suggestions that this situation may be revised in light of the controversy.

“I am not sure that the Attorney General should be taking the lead on political matters,” said Robinson of the situation. In an interview with the Irish Times, Robinson said that his first reaction to Larkin’s comments was “Where did that come from?”

Robinson went on to say that certain posts carried an expectation that the holder would not be “involved in the cut and thrust of politics” and would remain “apolitical.” He suggested that Attorney General was one of those posts. He also expressed concerns about the fact that he first heard about Larkin’s statements through the media.

Interestingly, on the same day Larkin made his comments about ceasing to investigate troubles-era killings, it was announced that Larkin had personally ordered a fresh inquest into just such a crime. The incident in question was the 1976 Rock Bar killings in Keady. This attack is attributed to the Loyalist Glenanne gang, and involved the shooting of a Catholic Civilian, firing upon pub customers, and the use of a nail bomb.

Some have claimed that Larkin is sparking off important debates on charged issues that politicians may be reluctant to touch. This idea would suggest that Larkin is using his position of influence and separation from specific political bodies to facilitate necessary discussion of important issues. This notion is also rejected by the First Minister. As well as commenting on the expectation that an Attorney General would remain apolitical, Robinson agrees that Larkin might be “saying the unsayable,” but says that in this case it is also “the unacceptable.”

Robinson made references to an official review which is currently underway, looking at the role of Attorney General. As well as the recent controversy, Larkin has been vocal on the subject of other political issues such as gay adoption and abortion. The review could result in his powers to speak out on such charged political issues being significantly limited.

In short, Mr Larkin may have been within his remit to make the comments as things stand, but that remit may be changed in the near future.

Accident Claims for Burns up 50%

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of personal injury claims made for people who had suffered burns rose by 50%. This information has been revealed by newly-released figures from the Injuries Board.

Burn Dressing

The number of accepted claims reviewed by the Injuries Board rose from 28 to 42, making the increase 50% exactly. The board’s Director of Corporate Services, Stephen Watkins, said that the increase was “worrying.”

Interestingly, the percentage of claims accepted by the board fell during the same period. In 2011, 37.2% of burn and scald injury claims were accepted, but in 2012 the figure stood at just 32.7%. The fact that the total number accepted was still higher implies that the number of initial claims made saw an even greater increase. The figures would suggest upwards of 80 further claims settled outside of this process.

In a press release, Mr Watkins said that the total value of accepted claims was €1.33 million, and the average value of an individual claim stood at €19,066.

Though the catering and cleaning industries account for the largest share of claims, chemical workers are also at risk. The most valuable individual claim was for a chemical worker, who was injured badly by an acid spill and awarded €106,949. In the most recent Chemicals Usage Survey, it was revealed that of all the companies in Ireland who use chemicals capable of causing a burn injury, 67% did not provide employees with any formal training on how to safely handle these substances.

In the same press release, Watkins outlined the most common causes of burns that resulted in an accident claim. These included scalding from overflow or splashing of hot liquids, acids and other chemicals, clothes being ignited by a nearby heat source, and  faulty electrical equipment. It was also revealed that when basic safety precautions were ignored, injuries and claims could result from simple tasks such as making hot drinks. Watkins suggested this emphasised the importance of ensuring that all safety precautions were followed in the workplace.

In a separate report last year, it was revealed that burn injuries in the work place are three times as likely to affect women as men. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of claims come from those working in the catering and cleaning industries, in which more women are employed than men.

If you have been affected by a burn or any other form of injury and are thinking of making an accident claim, it is important to ensure you consult qualified professionals such as those at CompensationClaims.co. They will be able to help you with your claim and provide expert advice on the options open to you.