Wealthy criminals will be forced to pay back legal aid

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The Independent Online

Middle class criminals found guilty of fraud, violent behaviour and other middle-ranking offences are to be forced to pay back their legal aid as part of a £70m cost-cutting drive.

Middle class criminals found guilty of fraud, violent behaviour and other middle-ranking offences are to be forced to pay back their legal aid as part of a £70m cost-cutting drive.

The new means test will target defendants who automatically qualify for free legal representation in magistrates' courts but can afford to pay for their own defence.

Ministers have not yet decided how much defendants will have to earn before they are caught by the rule but any calculation is expected to take account of personal savings as well as annual salaries.

The new scheme will not affect defendants cleared of any wrongdoing and is expected to complement the arrangements already in place in the crown courts where judges can make defence cost recovery orders.

The kind of criminals most likely to fall foul of the new rules are professionals or business people who are convicted of middle-ranking offences that attract prison sentences of less than one year. These crimes include public disorder, deception, theft and minor fraud.

Earlier this year the government published proposals to deny legal representation for some defendants accused of petty crime in a bid to cut the legal aid budget by £20m a year.

Under that scheme ministers wanted to abolish advocacy assistance for early hearings and restrict the court duty solicitor scheme to those "in custody or to those charged with an imprisonable offence".

Yesterday's announcement was part of a much wider review of the overall legal aid budget which is running at £2bn a year.

The year-on-year rise in legal aid budget has attracted the interest of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who are now committed to reversing the trend.

David Lammy, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, said: "If a person is found guilty of a serious criminal offence, then it is only right that they pay for as much of their legal defence if they are able to do so.

"We estimate that the measures ... will release up to £70m a year, allowing us to safeguard legal help for the poor and vulnerable in society, and those who have fallen on hard times."

The far-reaching study will focus on how best to provide legal help to those who need it in the longer term.

The new means test will be administered by the Legal Services Commission (LSC).

Janet Paraskeva, chief of the Law Society, said that the principle of high-earners repaying the cost of their legal representation was a fair one. But she added: " Means testing must be set at a level which will not leave some defendants unable to afford good quality legal advice. The administrative system of means testing must be cost-effective so that any savings are not swallowed up by red tape."