The changes are the latest in a package of legal aid reforms which make sure those accused of a crime and are wealthy enough to pay for some, or all, of their legal representation do so. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is expected to be able to order recovery of up to £2 million legal aid a year on average as a result of today’s changes to the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Legal aid costs can now be recovered from convicted criminals where their money and assets had been frozen by the courts under this law. Previously legal aid did not qualify for recovery from those assets, and so the only way to force criminals to pay up was through a separate, often unsuccessful, court battle after the criminal trial was finished. Today’s law change allows legal aid to be recovered once other compensation and confiscation orders have been made.
Legal Aid Minister Shailesh 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 spent or moved 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.
From today the new regulations will 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 these remaining assets to cover any outstanding legal aid costs or contributions.
The changes are the latest in a series of moves to make sure the wealthiest who can afford to pay for their own defence costs are not unfairly leaving the taxpayer to pick up the bill.
In January 2014 a financial eligibility threshold of £37,500 or more annual disposable household income was introduced for Crown Court cases so that the richest defendants are no longer automatically provided with legal aid up-front at public expense.
This would typically be defendants who have at least £3,000 in disposable income, after they have paid key costs like tax, housing and childcare costs and other essential outgoings every month. This means the LAA no longer have to fight to get the money back after their trial.
Notes to editors
The new powers came into force on 1 June 2015 so that any new restraint order issued on or after that date will have a legal aid exception. They have been created by changes through the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and then enabled by a statutory instrument updating the relevant legal aid regulations, together with a Home Office statutory instrument amending the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Together they create a mechanism to allow restrained assets to be used to pay legal aid contributions.
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