Wednesday 23 May 2018

Free legal aid claimants face having their assets raided

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Damien Eagers
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Damien Eagers
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

Suspects who claim free legal aid will have their assets and personal finances raided for the first time if they are suspected of abusing the system, the Irish Independent can reveal.

The Legal Aid Board is to be given CAB-style powers that could see suspects forced to repay legal aid bills that have been footed by the taxpayer.

The radical new proposals by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will also apply to criminals who are planning future appeals against their convictions.

The State pays around €50m per year in providing free legal aid, which goes towards the cost of hiring solicitors and barristers, witness expenses and technical and medical reports.

All individuals facing criminal charges can apply for free legal aid under the Constitution. The decision to grant the legal representation is made on the spot by the relevant judge.

However, Ms Fitzgerald is to bring the Heads of the new Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill 2015 to Cabinet, which will give the Legal Aid Board new powers to force criminals to make a contribution, if it is deemed they can afford to do so.

The board will share information with CAB, the Department of Social Protection and other relevant agencies, to probe the ability of suspects to foot their legal aid bills.

It's expected that the new law, which runs the risk of being challenged on constitutional grounds, will form part of the Fine Gael manifesto.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Ms Fitzgerald said the move is in response to suspicions being raised by members of the public over some individuals claiming legal aid.

"If criminals got legal aid, I'm going to give a power to look at assets and to make sure there is a contribution if there is any question of them having assets," Ms Fitzgerald said.

"If people see known criminals - whether it's very expensive cars, or whether its homes, or whatever assets, it seems to me that it's very reasonable to raise the question about criminal legal aid," she added.

If it is deemed that a suspect or serving prisoner has the means to pay the bill, the board will have the relevant powers to force them to do so.

"Head 10 (of the bill) will give the Legal Aid Board power to investigate the means of a person, following the grant to that person of legal aid by the court," Ms Fitzgerald said.

"The board could then make a determination that the person's means are sufficient to pay the legal costs, or a contribution to those costs, and the Heads provide for a procedure to bring this to fruition," she added.

Several high profile criminals, including murderer Graham Dwyer and drug dealer John Gilligan, have all claimed legal aid.

In the case of Gilligan, who was released from prison in October 2013, the State incurred a multi-million euro bill for his numerous appeals against his conviction and his ongoing battle against CAB.

Ms Fitzgerald confirmed that in future a serving criminal could be scrutinised by the Legal Aid Board.

Admitting that her proposal will be seen as "radical", the Dublin Mid-West TD pledged to implement the measures if Fine Gael is re-elected.

However, she admitted that the bill could potentially be challenged in the courts and that she is trying to "push the law as far as you can push it constitutionally, recognising obviously the constitutional right."

Irish Independent

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