Minister to consider public defender system to replace legal aid scheme

System would see defendants represented by State-employed lawyers

The Government is considering the introduction of a public defender system in an effort to reduce legal aid costs in criminal matters.

Such a system would replace the current free legal aid scheme with salaried lawyers in the full-time employment of the State who would represent defendants who cannot afford to hire their own representation.

Currently defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers are represented by solicitors and barristers who work in private practice and bill the State for their work on a per-case basis.

Proponents of a public defender system, such as that in operation in the US, argue it would save the State considerable sums of money compared to the yearly criminal legal aid bill.

Last year the State granted legal aid in 73,611 criminal cases and paid out €61.7 million to solicitors and barristers. Since 2018 more than €187 million has been paid out in criminal legal aid.

However, previous studies have suggested a public defender system could cost more than the legal aid scheme, while critics argue it will mean poorer defendants will receive a less effective defence in court and may give the impression that defence lawyers are not independent from the State.

Civil servants in the Department of Justice are currently preparing a paper exploring the introduction of a public defender system in Ireland. It is understood this is nearing completion, and will shortly be given to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee for consideration.

“An initial scoping paper on this programme for government commitment is currently under development within the department which will inform how this commitment will be taken forward,” a department spokesman told The Irish Times in response to queries.

It is not the first time the Government has examined reforming or abolishing the legal aid system, which has been criticised by many as too expensive and open to abuse.

In 1981 the first Criminal Legal Aid Review Committee was divided on whether a public defender system should be introduced. If it was to be considered, members said, it should only be confined to the busiest court areas such as Dublin and Cork.

Another report

A second Criminal Legal Aid Review Committee, set up by minister for justice Nora Owen in 1996, produced another report on the matter in 1999 which recommended the retention of the current system.

The committee said while it would not have concerns about the independence or competence of lawyers working as public defenders, the existing legal aid system offers greater flexibility to the court and greater choice for defendants.

It also concluded a public defender system would be unlikely to save the State money.

The committee examined public defender systems in the US, Scotland and Australia. It said compared to those systems the Irish legal aid set-up is streamlined, administratively inexpensive and non-bureaucratic.

“The committee considers that the existing private-practitioner system for providing criminal legal aid should be continued as it is a more equitable, effective and economic system, in the current circumstances, than a public defender system,” it concluded.