Gordon Brown has earned a rebuke from representatives of the legal profession after asserting that the three MPs in court over alleged abuses of their expenses would have to pay back the legal aid awarded to them.
The Prime Minister attempted to reassure the public yesterday that David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine would all have to repay the taxpayer for funding their legal bill. But he was quickly rebutted by the Legal Services Commission, in charge of legal aid, which said it was up to the trial judge to decide how much they would repay. The three may not have to hand back the full amount.
The head of the Law Society also criticised the Prime Minister. "It is a principle of our legal system that anyone charged with a criminal offence before the Crown Court is entitled to legal representation," said Desmond Hudson, its chief executive. "It would be very worrying if a fellow citizen charged with serious criminal matters could not be properly represented. Stigmatising legal aid is disappointing and unhelpful."
Mr Brown was questioned on the issue during a local radio phone-in. "I think the evidence is that people in their position will have to pay back the money – or most of the money – they get in legal aid," he said.
"We have actually abolished this free legal aid, so it has to be means-tested from the end of June, and they wouldn't have got it in these circumstances. The law has changed, so I think the money will have to be paid back."
A political row also erupted between Labour and the Tories over the issue yesterday. David Cameron labelled the granting of legal aid a "complete outrage" and said a Tory government would review the workings of the system to ensure a similar case would not happen again. However, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, revealed that Mr Cameron's party had attempted to block reforms that will ensure all white-collar defendants are means-tested before being handed help from the taxpayer.
While the changes have already come into force in some areas of Britain, they had not yet been applied to Southwark Crown Court, meaning the cases of the three politicians were decided under old legal aid rules.
Dominic Grieve, the shadow Justice Secretary, said Mr Brown's claim that the MPs would have to repay the money was a "hollow promise". "He must know it can't be fulfilled as he has no jurisdiction over ex-MPs," he said.
All three MPs are charged with false accounting and accused of stealing around £60,000 in expenses.
What is legal aid and should we be providing so much of it? Big Question, page 36Reuse content