Free legal aid reforms target €15m in savings
Compulsory means tests introduced
FREE legal aid will be overhauled in a bid to save a quarter of an annual bill which has skyrocketed to nearly €60m.
One firm of solicitors in each county will provide the service under new government plans.
The radical changes in how legal aid is provided will achieve huge savings in the cost, which jumped from €25m in 2000 to almost €55m in 2008.
And expenditure on criminal legal aid is likely to total around €60m for 2009, an increase of about 9pc over the previous year, despite a cut of 8pc in professional fees.
To road test the new scheme, tenders will be sought for a pilot programme in two counties, probably including Cork.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the successful solicitors would take sole responsibility for the legal aid work in each county.
The pilot tests would confirm whether this could be achieved in a more cost-effective and predictable manner.
But he expected that "substantial" savings could be made as a result of the changes.
Justice officials reckon that a target of a 25pc drop in expenditure on the work is not unrealistic.
Apart from producing the savings for the State, the tender system would also generate blocks of work for the successful solicitors, said Mr Ahern.
Changes are also being made to the legislation to allow the introduction of compulsory means tests in cases where the prosecution objects to legal aid.
The changes will also create new powers to require people with some means to make a financial contribution towards their defence.
Other measures will require the solicitor for the defendant to produce the client's PPS (personal public service) details.
They will give power to the courts to withdraw a legal aid certificate in certain circumstances, substantially increase the penalties for fraud if the basis for the application is found to be false, and restrict power to grant additional lawyers to the trial court.
According to officials, much of the significant increase in costs in recent years is attributable to the rise in the number of cases going through the courts as a result of additional gardai and judges, as well as more efficient processes.
The number of legal aid certificates granted by the judiciary has rocketed from 30,000 in 2003 to 55,000 last year.
But despite the overhaul of the existing legislation, it will remain the ultimate responsibility of the courts to determine eligibility for criminal legal aid, including cases where the charges are brought under new anti-gangland laws.
Mr Ahern said: "This is one financial area that needs to be tackled."