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Opinion: 'Our free legal aid system is being abused'

The State has spent a whopping €428 million on free legal aid since 2009, writes Senator John O’Mahony.

John O'Mahony Fine Gael Senator

I FIRMLY BELIEVE that everybody deserves a fair trial. However, I am worried that our free legal aid system is open to exploitation.

Criminals who have committed multiple crimes have been granted free legal aid on each occasion, even though in some cases they have multiple assets.

In the UK, legal aid is means-tested and the assets of the accused person are taken into account. Some US states also have a system whereby people are granted free legal aid three times and, after that, they have to make a financial contribution themselves.

Abuse of our system

Legal aid is a central tenet in our democracy, helping those who are vulnerable in an array of different legal situations. What is of great concern to me is abuse of the system.

I believe our free legal aid system needs to be reformed urgently. The Criminal Justice Act 1962 provides that free legal aid may be granted, in certain circumstances, for the defence of people who have insufficient means in criminal proceedings. The State has spent €428 million on free legal aid since 2009.

In Ireland, if you have been charged with a criminal offence and are due to appear in court, you can apply to the judge for legal aid on the day. You will have to fill in a financial means form. If the judge says that you are eligible for free legal aid, you will be assigned a solicitor there and then.

People on high wages seem to qualify

I am convinced that there needs to be a thorough investigation of this process. We have seen high-profile cases recently of people who are on high wages and others who have substantial assets, yet they seem to qualify for free legal aid.

I am convinced measures like these should be explored as they would result in considerable savings to the exchequer.

The criminal legal aid scheme has been in operation for just over 50 years and is instrumental in enabling the State to meet its legal obligations including rights-based requirements under the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure access to justice, fair hearings and trials.

The State dedicates significant resources to detecting crime and in prosecutions. We must be conscious also of the need to ensure the right to a defence. The proposed legislation is intended to uphold that right.

Creating a more efficient legal system

The government has indicated that reform of the system is imminent. The Programme for Government proposed the transfer responsibility for Criminal Legal Aid to the Legal Aid Board, who will have new powers to compel criminals to pay a contribution.

With the government set to introduce a more rigorous and objective means testing process for such applications, all avenues need to be explored. Increasing the sanction for false declarations and improving prosecution in cases of abuse will be incorporated into this reform.

Fine Gael’s priority is protecting our citizens by reducing crime through significant investment in An Garda Síochána, the creation of a more efficient legal system, and a tough sentencing approach to offenders.

John O’Mahony is a Mayo-based Fine Gael Senator.

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About the author:

John O'Mahony  / Fine Gael Senator

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