Prime Minister Gordon Brown today stirred a fresh row over legal aid for the three Labour MPs accused of fiddling their parliamentary expenses.
He declared they would have to refund their legal expenses, prompting a clash with the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales.
The disclosure yesterday that David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine would receive legal aid was denounced as a "complete outrage" by Tory leader David Cameron, who promised a review of the system if he won power to ensure it would not happen again.
But Justice Secretary Jack Straw said Labour had already introduced reforms, against Tory opposition, to enable the courts to means-test white-collar defendants for legal aid. The changes were not being implemented in time to cover the MPs' case.
Asked about the case during a phone-in on BBC Radio Derby today, Mr Brown said: "I think this money will have to be paid back by these politicians.
"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.
"We have actually abolished this free legal aid from the end of June, 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."
But Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said in a statement: "It is a principle of our legal system that anyone charged with a criminal offence before the Crown Court is entitled to legal representation.
"This is a vital part of ensuring that charges against a defendant must be fully proved in a fair trial.
"This must require the provision of legal aid. The Government has recently introduced a means test for such cases to ensure that those who can afford to contribute to the costs of their representation are asked to do so.
"Depending on the wealth of the individual and the cost of the case, their contribution could cover all costs.
"It would be very worrying indeed if a fellow citizen charged with serious criminal matters could not be properly represented in court. Stigmatising the legal aid system is disappointing and unhelpful."
And shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: "This is a hollow promise from Gordon Brown. He must know it can't be fulfilled as he has no jurisdiction over ex-MPs.
"Judges decide whether defendants should have to pay costs in this country, not Gordon Brown."Reuse content