Thursday 22 August 2019

Legal aid is fundamentally flawed

JUDGE Eugene O'Kelly made national headlines recently when he revoked free legal aid from a number of defendants at Limerick District Court who failed to appear because they were away on foreign holidays with their families.

Good on him I say!

If I'm perfectly honest, the notion of free legal aid has never sat comfortably with me, maybe because I've seen so much of it over the years covering courts.

The notion that someone who has met the criteria for free legal aid can then afford a family holiday in the sun demonstrates exactly why the system is fundamentally flawed and needs urgent review.

At the moment, the majority of defendants who appear in court claiming to have no means and whose sole income is social welfare are automatically entitled to free representation by a solicitor. I can honesty count on one hand the amount of times I've seen a judge refuse an application.

While I totally agree that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and no one should be denied the best representation because of their background or social class, I have a major issue with repeat offenders costing the tax payer millions of euro each year, when that very same tax payer is denied such an 'entitlement.'

If I ever found myself in court, I would have to pay for my own defence, because apparently I earn too much money. Yet, I'd be hard pressed to take my family on a sun holiday.

But if someone with 10, 20 or even 50 convictions breaks into my house, and happens to be on social welfare, it's my tax money that funds his defence. That is absolute madness.

So when is enough enough?

There is no deterrent and there is no consequence for these criminals, and therein lies the problem.

As long as repeat offenders know they can walk into court each and every time and be guaranteed a top notch defence, absolutely free, then we're fighting a losing battle.

Last year, the State paid out €29.3m in legal aid to 963 solicitors across the country, while Ireland's barristers earned an additional €17.6m.

Maybe it's time our repeat offenders were left fend for themselves after so many cracks of the whip - then let's see how many would be jetting off to the sun.

New Ross Standard