The Legal Aid Agency expects to claw back up to £2m a year in legal aid after new powers to recover unpaid costs from convicted offenders came into force today.
Changes to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 will allow the agency to recover costs from convicted criminals where their money and assets have been frozen, the Ministry of Justice announced.
Previously legal aid was recoverable only through a separate and, according to the MoJ, ‘often unsuccessful’ court battle after the criminal trial had finished.
Any finances left after victims’ payments and confiscation orders have been made can continue to be restrained if the person still owes unpaid legal aid bills. The ministry said the court can now allow, in appropriate cases, the agency to use those remaining assets to cover any outstanding legal aid costs or contributions.
Echoing then justice secretary Chris Grayling’s comments in March - when the ministry announced it had laid changes to the regulations by way of a statutory instrument - legal aid minister Shailesh Vara (pictured) said the measures were ‘another vital step in creating a fair and credible system. 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.’
Robin Murray, vice-chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, said the group had 'long argued' for restrained assets to be applied towards legal aid.
'We regret the opportunity wasted by the government by the imposition of an excessive court charge rather than applying a modest amount towards legal aid upon conviction.'
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, said the new measures may be appropriate as long as they are applied appropriately in respect of those who genuinely do not qualify for legal aid. 'But of course a more consistent approach would be to simplify the provisions to enable those with restrained assets to release funds to pay for representation up front in certain circumstances.'
Black invited the MoJ to review 'many aspects' of legal aid provision through engagement with the LCCSA and the CLSA.