Cork solicitors at top of legal aid pay league
New legislation planned to clamp down on criminals 'milking the system'
One of the country's most high profile solicitors has topped the free legal aid pay league, earning €548,000 in fees over a 12-month period.
But the Sunday Independent has confirmed there are now plans for a major overhaul of the scheme which has an annual cost to the taxpayer of €47m.
Among the well-known criminals who have benefited from free legal aid is one of the country's most notorious criminals, John Gilligan.
Joe O'Reilly, who murdered his wife Rachel, also availed of the state-funded scheme, which has cost the taxpayer more than €240m over the past five years.
However, it has now been confirmed that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is currently preparing new legislation designed to clamp down on hardened criminals 'milking the system'. It will force certain suspects to rely on their own financial resources to fund court appearances. In addition, those found to have 'abused' the system will face serious sanctions.
Meanwhile, a number of solicitors and barristers continue to earn significant amounts from free legal aid. The firm of Cork-based solicitor Frank Buttimer, who operates one of the best known legal practices in the country, earned more than €548,000 from the scheme last year. In 2011, the firm earned €889,660.
Meanwhile, the highest-earning legal aid criminal barrister in 2015, Michael Bowman SC, was paid €457,773. Mr Bowman also topped the list the previous year, when he received €352,392 from the State.
In 2013, senior counsel, Anthony Sammon, was paid €343,088. And in 2012, Luigi Rea BL received €415,973, while Brian McInerney BL was paid €428,191 in 2011.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern that certain criminals, who have accumulated obvious wealth over the years, are systematically abusing the system.
Successive justice ministers have made various attempts to reform the current guidelines with limited effect.
However, the Department of Justice says Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is now determined to "update the law" in relation to the granting of criminal legal aid.
Among the proposals is more direct involvement by the Legal Aid Board.
New powers will also be introduced forcing "contributions" from defendants, more rigorous means testing, and stronger sanctions against abuses.
The Criminal Legal Aid Review Committee proposed changes in the system as far back as 1999.
A backdrop to the current review is concern that the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) needs additional resources and staff to combat high profile criminals who are flaunting obvious wealth - but who insist to the courts they are without financial means.