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Free Legal Aid Expenditure

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Free Legal Aid Expenditure

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Senator


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Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter)

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Snippet Contents:

Total expenditure on criminal legal aid for the years referred to by the Deputy was as follows: 2009 - €60.3 million; 2010 - €56.5 million; 2011 - €56.1 million; 2012 - €50.5 million; 2013 to date €5.8 million. The Deputy will note that total expenditure for 2012 represented a reduction of 10% over 2011. This reduction in the annual expenditure is the largest ever recorded and represents a fall of approximately €10 million, or 16%, over the peak recorded in 2009. That significant reduction follows savings measures I introduced since coming into office including cuts to fees in the course of 2011.
As the Deputy will be aware, under the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. An applicant for legal aid must establish to the satisfaction of the court that his/her means are insufficient to enable him/her to pay for legal aid him/herself. The Act specifies that the court must also be satisfied that, by reason of the "gravity of the charge" or "exceptional circumstances", it is essential in the interests of justice that the applicant should have legal aid. An applicant's previous convictions are not a criterion for access to legal aid under the Act and the information sought by the Deputy regarding persons with prior convictions is therefore not recorded.
I am sure the Deputy appreciates that an accused person who faces serious charges is entitled to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence and if he/she cannot afford to pay for legal representation there is a right to legal aid. Under the Constitution, the State is obliged to provide an accused person with the means to obtain appropriate legal representation. Moreover, the European Convention on Human Rights provides that every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to defend him/herself in person or through legal assistance of his/her own choosing or, if he/she has insufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require. The Deputy will appreciate that the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme must operate with due regard to these rights and that any unreasonable block on legal aid could give a convicted defendant an avenue for appeal or prohibition of the prosecution. My overriding concern is to ensure that no risk arises in relation to the prosecution of persons charged with criminal offences before the courts.
I can inform the Deputy that a new Criminal Legal Aid Bill is being drafted to update and strengthen the system of granting legal aid including transferring responsibility for the administration of the Scheme to the Legal Aid Board. Consideration is being given to including in the Bill provisions to, inter alia, regulate better the taking of statements of means, increase the sanction for false declarations, allow the Board to verify the means of applicants and to prosecute cases of abuse. Provision to give power to the Legal Aid Board to recover the costs of criminal legal aid or to make application to a court to revoke a criminal legal aid certificate are also under consideration. These provisions will have regard to a person's rights to the presumption of innocence, to a fair trial and to be given legal aid, where appropriate. I hope it will be possible to publish the Bill during the course of this year.