Wednesday 21 August 2019

Legal aid chief wants new powers to review dubious applications

'People need criminal legal aid and, constitutionally, they should get it. That is the way our system works and is the way it should work. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to look at individual cases.' Stock picture
'People need criminal legal aid and, constitutionally, they should get it. That is the way our system works and is the way it should work. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to look at individual cases.' Stock picture
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The new chairman of the Legal Aid Board believes it should have the power to review the granting of criminal legal aid, where suspicions arise about applicants' means.

Legislative proposals are being considered which, if introduced, would allow the board to revisit certificates issued to cover a person's legal costs where questions later emerge over information submitted in their application.

Chairman Philip O'Leary told the Irish Independent he believed the board should have the power to review individual cases.

The Cork-based solicitor, appointed in November, also said he wished to see the application process move from a paper-based one to an electronic system, making it easier to track and examine applications.

"If you are going to properly manage any sort of a criminal legal aid scheme you have to have oversight in terms of who is applying and on what basis they are applying and whether they are being completely forthcoming in respect of their means," he said.

"People need criminal legal aid and, constitutionally, they should get it. That is the way our system works and is the way it should work. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to look at individual cases."

Under the system as it stands, criminal legal aid is granted by judges once an applicant has satisfied the court that they don't have the means to pay their legal costs themselves.

It is a discretionary matter for each court and, unlike civil legal aid, is not governed by any financial eligibility guidelines.

Applicants must complete a statement of means - it is an offence to provide false information. However, legal system sources say there have been only a small number of prosecutions for this through the years.

Under proposals being examined by the Justice Department, the granting of criminal legal aid would still rest with the courts, but a formal review mechanism could be triggered afterwards if deemed necessary.

"Some of the proposals would include that the Legal Aid Board would have the ability to revisit a legal aid certificate if they weren't satisfied with the information that had been provided to the district judge," said Mr O'Leary.

"That opens up possibilities of reviewing and revisiting legal aid applications."

Mr O'Leary said he was "not trying to cast aspersions" on the current system, which he said was working "adequately".

However, he said he would like to see its administration modernised. "I think as part of that modernisation there should be an oversight in terms of the auditing of the various schemes and the forms that are being completed, like you would do with any other scheme, such as the medical card," he said.

Irish Independent

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