THE IRISH STATE has shelled out nearly €430 million on criminal legal aid in the last eight years.
While the amount spent annually has decreased slightly in recent years, an average of €54 million is still being spent on representation for those facing criminal charges each year.
Figures released to TheJournal.ie under Freedom of Information legislation show that a grand total of €428.1 million has been allocated to defend criminal charges in that time.
The full breakdown is as follows:
€53 million was allocated for legal aid last year, a 4% increase on the amount spent in 2015.
Criminal legal aid is entirely free, and is provided to those facing criminal charges once they pass a basic means-test. Given the sheer expense involved in defending even basic criminal charges, the vast majority of people facing such charges in Ireland are entitled to aid.
In 2015, 71% of suspects and accused persons in Ireland were entitled to that aid.
This means that even individuals who were formerly of high net worth, such as former Anglo Irish Bank CEO David Drumm, are entitled to a free defence.
Almost all of the money earmarked for legal aid comes from the Department of Justice.
Attempts have been made to reduce the bill in recent years, with the rates of fees paid to legal practitioners decreasing by 8% in 2009 and a further 8% in 2010. Despite this, the increase seen in 2016 sees the amount of fees paid inching back towards the level seen at the start of the decade.
At present, criminal aid is governed by the Criminal Justice Act 1962. Last September Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald committed to one of her party’s pre-election promises – an update to the 1962 act that would move the provision of criminal aid to the aegis of the Legal Aid Board (the statutory instrument responsible for legal civil aid), and introduce a number of measures to safeguard against abuses of the system, including sanctions and the introduction of contributions from those receiving aid.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice confirmed to TheJournal.ie that update bill is now “at an advanced stage of development” and will be submitted “to the Oireachtas for pre-legislative scrutiny as early as is feasible in 2017″.
Meanwhile, while the costs may be high, Ireland’s current legal aid system is nevertheless seen as being one of Europe’s better ones.
At present a directive on the subject is expected imminently from the EU – one that is in all likelihood aimed at raising other countries (such as the aforementioned Slovenia and Hungary, not to mention Italy) to the same levels of aid as Ireland currently boasts.