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Legal aid system introduced after woman suffering from domestic violence was unable to access the courts

Airey v. Ireland  | 1979

Legal aid system introduced after woman suffering from domestic violence was unable to access the courts

I knew myself that there was something wrong in the law. Somewhere there must be some place where there’s justice

Johanna Airey on ‘Frontline’ - © Photo RTE

Background

Johanna Airey complained to the authorities that her husband was a violent alcoholic. She claimed that he subjected her and her four children to mental and physical violence for many years.

Mrs Airey sought a legal separation to protect herself and the children. However, no lawyer would represent her because she could not afford the fees. This meant that Mrs Airey’s husband could enter or stay in the family home. 

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that it would have been impossible for Mrs Airey to represent herself in court. In these circumstances, the lack of any legal aid from the government meant that she was effectively denied access to a court. This breached her basic rights.

Follow-up

After the Strasbourg court’s judgment, in 1980 legal aid was introduced in Ireland for a range of civil issues. Among the beneficiaries were women involved in separation cases, suffering from the same problems as Mrs Airey. The programme provided them with legal advice and effective access to the courts.