Suspects claiming free legal aid are to have their assets and personal finances raided for the first time if they are suspected of abusing the system, the Herald can reveal.
The Legal Aid Board is to be given CAB-style powers that could see suspects forced to repay legal aid bills footed by the taxpayer.
Radical new proposals by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will also apply to criminals who are planning future appeals against their convictions.
The State spends around €50m a year 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 legal representation is made on the spot by the relevant judge.
However, Ms Fitzgerald is to bring to Cabinet the heads of the new Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill 2015, 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 investigate the ability of suspects to foot their legal bills. It is 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 Herald, Ms Fitzgerald said the move is in response to suspicions being raised by members of the public over some individuals claiming legal aid.
"If people see known criminals have very expensive cars, or homes or whatever assets, it seems to me that it's very reasonable to raise the question about criminal legal aid," said Ms Fitzgerald.
Several high-profile criminals, including murderer Graham Dwyer and drug dealer John Gilligan, have all claimed legal aid.
In the case of Gilligan, the State incurred a multi-million euro bill for his numerous appeals against his conviction and his ongoing battle with CAB.