HUNDREDS of criminal suspects have been claiming free legal aid many times in the same year.
It is the first time the scale of the practice has been revealed, with a total of 666 suspects getting a free consultation with a solicitor more than once last year while they were in custody in a garda station.
The Irish Independent has learned that Justice Minister Alan Shatter is now planning to deny legal aid to criminals believed to have hidden assets or else charge them for it in an attempt to reduce the €50m-plus cost of the scheme.
One suspect received free legal aid on 12 separate occasions in the space of 12 months, while another got it nine times.
This is the tip of the iceberg as it only represents the free legal advice given in garda stations at a cost of €887,000 a year. It does not take account of free legal aid given to criminals for court appearances, which costs €50.5m a year.
The Department of Justice has confirmed it is constitutionally impossible to cut off free legal aid to criminals if they have no assets or income as they are entitled to a fair trial.
Fine Gael Mayo TD John O'Mahony said: "There would be lots of them on social welfare, so there should be something taken back from them over a period. A lot of people are in need, but there doesn't seem to be any restriction on this."
The Legal Aid Board, which provided the Irish Independent with the statistics, provides free legal aid to people on low incomes in civil cases such as divorces, separations and child support payments, but since the end of 2011 it has also been responsible for the free criminal legal aid scheme in garda stations.
Chief executive Dr Moling Ryan said people who accessed free legal aid up to 12 times in a garda station in a year were likely to be getting the same support in court. The board pays solicitors €97 to advise an arrested person in a garda station, rising to €132 out of hours.
The 666 suspects who claimed free legal aid twice or more last year represent 16pc of the 4,155 claims under the scheme, but no such statistics are available for the main criminal legal aid scheme.
Judges are responsible for free legal aid in court, and can look for more evidence before granting it if they believe a suspect may have hidden wealth.