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Legal Aid Agency to recover £2m from convicted criminals

Reforms to make criminals with means pay back legal aid costs to taxpayer must be applied appropriately, says LCCSA

1 June 2015

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New measures to make those convicted of crimes pay more towards their legal bills have come into force today, legal aid minister Shailesh Vara has announced.

The changes are the latest in a package of legal aid reforms in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and are designed to ensure those accused of a crime and wealthy enough to pay for some or all of their legal representation, do so.

The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is expecting recover on average up to £2m in legal aid per year as a result of changes to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

In addition, legal aid costs can now be recovered from those convicted of crime where their assets had been frozen by the courts. Previously legal aid did not qualify for recovery from those assets. The reforms will allow legal aid to be recovered once other compensation and confiscation orders have been made.

Legal aid minister Vara said: 'Too often people convicted of crimes have been able to avoid paying what they owe. Legal aid is taxpayers' money and it is right we do not spend it on those who can afford to pay their own costs. These measures will make sure legal aid is repaid, and are another vital step in creating a fair and credible system.'

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act those accused have financial assets identified which are then 'restrained' by the court, meaning they cannot be touched by the person who has been charged until their trial is over. If they are convicted, these assets can then be used by the court to pay compensation to victims or to make confiscation orders.

However, the new regulations mean any finances left after those payments are made can now continue to be restrained if the person also still owes unpaid legal aid bills. In appropriate cases the court can now allow the LAA to use remaining assets to cover outstanding legal aid costs or contributions.

The changes are the latest in a series of moves by government to force those with the funds to pay for their own defence and not leave the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

In January 2014, a financial eligibility threshold of £37,500 annual disposable household income was introduced for Crown Court cases so that defendants with means are no longer automatically provided with legal aid at public expense.

This would typically include defendants with at least £3,000 in disposable income, after they have paid key costs like tax, housing, childcare, and other essential costs each month.

Commenting on the reforms, Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA), and partner at BSB Solicitors, said: 'These measures may be appropriate as long as they are applied appropriately in respect of those who genuinely do not qualify for legal aid on means but of course a more consistent approach would be to simplify the provisions enable those with restrained assets to release funds to pay for representation up front in certain circumstances.

'We are inviting the MoJ to review many aspects of legal aid provision through engagement with the LCCSA and our sister organisation, the CLSA.'

 

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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