Criminal Assets Bureau could be used to cut legal aid bills, department suggests
Department of Justice warns that asylum seekers could be left homeless by further cuts
“A more thorough analysis of a defendant’s ability to pay, possibly in conjunction with the Criminal Assets Bureau in certain cases, may be warranted,” the Department of Public Expenditure says
The State could cut its criminal legal aid bill by using the Criminal Assets Bureau to carry out a “more thorough” analysis of defendants’ ability to pay, the Department of Public Expenditure has said.
As part of the Government’s recent review of State expenditure, the department said eligibility for criminal legal aid should be investigated by the Department of Justice and that “strict guidelines” could be given to judges on the granting of legal aid.
“With due regard for the constitutional entitlement to legal representation, a more thorough analysis of a defendant’s ability to pay, possibly in conjunction with the Criminal Assets Bureau in certain cases, may be warranted,” the analysis by the Department of Public Expenditure said.
It also suggested that officials in the Department of Justice should review the rates paid to lawyers under the scheme, pointing out that a 10 per cent cut in fees would result in an annual saving of €4.8 million.
The free legal aid scheme is designed to give people of limited means an opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to legal representation. The department noted that any changes “must be sensitive to the potential for legal challenge”.
In the expenditure review, Government departments were asked to set out options for living within set spending ceilings and to say how they would operate with a further 5 per cent budget cut. Many departments said more cuts could not be made and pitched instead for significant funding increases.
The Department of Justice saw little room for reductions. It noted that criminal legal aid fees had been cut several times in recent years and warned that further reductions “would seriously compromise the effective operation of the scheme”.
It insisted that it would be impossible for the immigration service to cut its budget by 5 per cent. If cuts of that order were imposed, it warned, direct provision centres for asylum seekers would have to be closed down, “leaving some people homeless”, or the money paid to providers of asylum seeker accommodation would have to be cut to such “unacceptable levels” that they would pull out.
The Department of Public Expenditure saw further room for reductions, however, including from new or higher immigration fees. It also suggested charging for applications processed by the Garda Vetting Unit, which are free.