Board to administer criminal aid scheme

 

CUTTING COSTS:THE MINISTER for Justice has announced plans to bring the administration of the criminal legal aid scheme under the Legal Aid Board, which at the moment deals with civil legal aid.

In a move aimed at cutting costs and streamlining the delivery of legal aid, Dermot Ahern yesterday told the Legal Aid Board (LAB) conference he would shortly be bringing legislation to Government to assign responsibility for criminal legal aid, along with related non-statutory schemes, to the board.

The legislation will be given priority by the Minister and is expected to be introduced later this year or early next year, according to his spokesman.

Criminal legal aid is currently allocated through the courts. A panel of solicitors and barristers providing legal aid exists, and when a person of limited means accused of an offence is charged, he or she can apply for legal aid.

The individual may ask gardaí in the case for names of solicitors, or may already have a name in mind.

A legal aid certificate is then issued by the judge, if he or she considers the person meets the criteria.

The accused can specify the solicitor they want, or have a solicitor assigned by the judge.

It is not envisaged that the panel system would change. Application of the means test and administration of the scheme, including allocation of clients to those on the panel, would pass to the board. Mr Ahern said: “I am confident that this integration of responsibility will lead to a better functioning, more efficient and more accountable means of managing legal aid to ensure that scarce finances are appropriately directed to the most needy in society.”

Commenting on the proposals in his address to the conference, Frank Brady, the LAB director of legal aid, said planning and organising for the transfer of responsibility, and the actual administration of the service, would be a major challenge for the board.

“There is no expertise and very little knowledge of criminal legal aid. The two systems are fundamentally different, and the board will face a difficult learning curve. Nevertheless, the board would welcome the opportunity to play a lead role in the future development of the criminal legal aid service.”

He said the board would require the necessary resources to undertake its responsibilities.