Garda overtime and legal aid rates threaten justice system, reports say

Policing will be put under pressure unless costs are tackled, new reviews claim

The Government must move to reduce legal aid payments and Garda overtime rates, a series of expenditure reports warn. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The Government must move to reduce legal aid payments and Garda overtime rates, a series of expenditure reports warn. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Policing operations and the justice system will come under significant pressure in the years ahead unless the Government moves to reduce legal aid payments and Garda overtime rates, a series of expenditure reports warn.

The warnings are contained in two reports by the Irish Government Economic Evaluation Service (IGEES) into expenditure in the justice system.

IGEES also detailed a draft Bill from the Department of Justice which will require those accused of criminal offences to make a contribution to their own legal aid for the first time.

It said this could represent a significant income stream for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), but warned the costs of administering the new system could cancel out much of this revenue.

The State spent €58 million on legal aid payments in 2017, just €2 million less than the peak figure for such payments, which was recorded in 2009.

In a report covering legal aid, IGEES says increasingly complex laws and recent lengthy white-collar trials have helped to drive the increase. Factors such as the current Garda operations against organised crime will cause the bill to continue to increase in the future.

Unlike many other countries, the State operates a black-and-white criminal legal aid system. Defendants are means-tested and if it is determined they do not qualify for legal aid they must meet the full costs of their defence. Those who fall below this threshold have their full costs paid by the State.

The draft Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill will introduce a sliding scale to legal aid contributions, meaning those who have some assets but can’t meet the full cost of a case will have to make a contribution to their costs. The contribution would be decided by the courts.

Power to review

The Bill will also give the Legal Aid Board powers to review awards of legal aid and recover costs if it decides someone was not entitled to claim aid. “The objective is to reduce the scope for any abuse and ensure that funds under the CLAS are directed towards those who need it.”

IGEES noted it is likely most people who come before the criminal courts will not be in a position to make any contributory payment.

It estimated a contributory scheme could yield €721,000 per year, but warned the costs of running the scheme “may also be quite significant”.

In a separate report, IGEES found the Garda overtime bill has increased by 185 per cent since 2013 and is now up to triple the equivalent spend in the UK.

It warned that the current overtime rates are not sustainable, particularly given the Government’s plans to increase the size of the force to 21,000 by 2021.

While major operations aimed at stemming the Hutch-Kinahan feud account for a significant amount of overtime payments, the report found that overtime had increased in all areas of policing and in all parts of the country.

In 2017, the overtime bill was €131.8 million. Organised crime operations accounted for €18.2 million of this, while Operation Thor, an anti-burglary initiative, cost €9.5 million. Security at Dublin Port, which is staffed entirely on an overtime basis, cost €3.4 million.

Most of the remaining overtime payments (€98.5 million) came from ordinary policing duties. This represents a 58 per cent increase on the 2013 figure.

Nearly 12 per cent of the Garda pay bill is now comprised of overtime payments. By comparison, the rate for police services in the UK is between 4 and 5 per cent.