A MAN with 56 previous convictions and at least €44,000 worth of annual social welfare benefits got free legal aid for his latest court case, drawing criticism of the system from the judge.
Judge Mary Fahy objected to "this free legal aid for people who are recidivists".
"If they had to pay the money out of their own pockets they might not be so quick to reoffend. I don't think this can last, the system will have to be overhauled," she said.
The exasperated judge was hearing a case against father-of-eight Kevin McDonagh, 38, of Knocknacarra, Galway at the District Court last Tuesday.
McDonagh has 56 previous convictions, eight of which were notched up in the last two years, including a firearms offence for which he served three months in 2008. He received a further seven-month jail sentence later that year for public order offences.
On this occasion he received a five-month prison sentence and a five-year ban for driving without insurance while he was already disqualified from driving.
The judge granted McDonagh's application for free legal aid, but remarked that he was receiving €850 a week in social welfare payments and was better off than most working people. McDonagh's €850 a week in benefits suggests a social welfare income of €44,000 annually.
Criminal legal aid claims have rocketed in number in recent years, from 36,423 granted in 2005 to 55,412 in 2010 -- a near 50 per cent rise.
The cost to the taxpayer has soared too, with barristers and solicitors pocketing €56.5m in 2010, up from €40.2m in 2005. Lawyers earned €60m, the highest amount ever from criminal legal aid, in 2009, even though the Government had imposed an 8 per cent fees cut.
A further 8 per cent was axed from fees in 2010, but, in spite of this 16 per cent total cut, earnings by legal eagles fell by only 7 per cent, and the number of legal aid claims fell only slightly.
Several solicitors earned well over €1m from legal aid up to 2009.
The Department of Justice says the rapid rise in costs and claims was due to the improved efficiency of the justice system resulting in more people appearing before the courts and applying for legal aid.