Noye claim for aid prompts plan to let judges seize assets

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The Independent Online

Judges are to be given greater powers to investigate the finances of criminals and their spouses to try to stop false claims for legal aid.

Judges are to be given greater powers to investigate the finances of criminals and their spouses to try to stop false claims for legal aid.

The move follows the case of Kenneth Noye, the M25 road-rage killer, who was granted £250,000 in legal aid despite having substantial assets.

Under the new proposals, published yesterday, judges will be under a duty to consider ordering special investigations into the business affairs of convicted criminals.

That would include cases in which a criminal had transferred funds to a partner, spouse or other third party. The judge would also have the power to freeze assets in support of the investigation.

At present the Court Service means-tests the defendant's ability to pay before the case starts. The consultation paper proposes that this assessment should take place after the start of the case and under the direction of the trial judge.

In deciding whether to make a "recovery of defence costs order" the court should consider whether the defendant has an "aura of wealth" and take account of whether the defendant is known nationallyor locally as "successful in business".

Judges would be offered training to help them identify defendants who should be considered for investigations or cost orders.

David Lock MP, a minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, said that only 1 per cent of applications for legal aid were refused. "We have to shift the burden of work on court staff which produces very little outcome to targeting our investigations and streamlining the process," he said.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has ordered an inquiry into three court officials at the Old Bailey who processed Noye's legal aid application.

The Court Service workers were found by an auditors' investigation to have failed to follow proper procedures when they awarded the millionaire gangster public funds last year.

However, the funds are understood to have been granted through a failure to check Noye's financial background, rather than corrupt practice.