Tough sentences add £100m to legal aid bill

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The Independent Online

The Government's tough stance on crime and anti-social behaviour cost the taxpayer an extra £100m in legal aid last year as thousands more offenders faced imprisonment.

The Government's tough stance on crime and anti-social behaviour cost the taxpayer an extra £100m in legal aid last year as thousands more offenders faced imprisonment.

The overspend has forced the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to ask Gordon Brown for more money to pay for the legal representation of the increasing number of offenders who risk or receive custodial sentences.

In recent years ministers have launched a number of high-profile initiatives urging courts to clamp down on street crime, bail bandits and anti-social behaviour. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and his predecessor, Jack Straw, have both encouraged magistrates to get tough with persistent offenders.

Since Labour came to power the number of immediate custodial sentences imposed by the courts each year has risen by 12 per cent. In 2001, the most recently available figures, 80,300 offenders were sent to prison while custodial sentences for last year are expected to be even higher.

The increased bill reflects the willingness of magistrates to respond to demands for tougher punishments for offences that in the past have been dealt with by more lenient community sentencing.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said the "overwhelming cause" of the £100million increase in legal aid payments was "more punitive sentencing" in the magistrates' courts. This has led to more defendants arguing that they risk custody and therefore should qualify for legal aid. The spokeswoman said that there was no evidence to suggest that more people were being prosecuted, only that a greater range of offences were attracting prison sentences.

Lord Irvine wants extra funding to cover the additional £100m so that the annual £1.6bn legal aid budget can be balanced. A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said that an application was with the Treasury. She said ministers had not made a final decision about how to meet the overspend.

Solicitors fear that the Treasury will refuse to pay up, leaving the Lord Chancellor no choice but to clamp down on legal aid spending.

Angus Andrew, chairman of the Law Society's representation board, has raised such fears with the solicitors' ruling body, according to the Law Society Gazette. He said that the prime candidate was criminal advice and assistance work.

Richard Miller, of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said solicitors had noticed a greater willingness by magistrates to send people to prison for theft and public disorder offences.

Last year Tony Blair promised to step up the war against crime and anti-social behaviour by introducing tougher punishments for graffiti artists and people who spit chewing gum in the street.