Wealthy criminals will have to pay legal aid costs under new provisions introduced yesterday. Costs can now be recovered from convicted criminals, where money and assets have been frozen by the courts. Previously, the only way to force criminals to pay up was through, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), ‘a separate, often unsuccessful, court battle’ after a trial has come to an end.
The government reckons that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is expected to be able to order recovery of up to £2 million legal aid a year as a result of the changes to the Proceeds of Crime Act.
‘Too often people convicted of crimes have been able to avoid paying what they owe,’ commented legal aid minister Shailesh Vara. ‘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, if an accused is convicted then their assets can be used by the court to pay compensation to victims or to make confiscation orders. As of this week, new regulations will mean any remaining assets will continue to be restrained and, in appropriate cases, the LAA will be allowed to use them to cover outstanding legal aid costs.
According to the MoJ, the changes were ‘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 were no longer automatically provided with legal aid. ‘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,’ The MoJ says. ‘This means the LAA no longer have to fight to get the money back after their trial.’
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