Draft legislation published today (19 July) will enable the courts to make the granting of legal aid conditional on an assessment of income by the Legal Aid Board (LAB).
The proposed legislation will also transfer administrative operation of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme from the Department of Justice to the LAB.
The department says that the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill 2023 will modernise the operation of the legal-aid scheme, and introduce “strengthened oversight and governance structures”.
The general scheme of the bill proposes a written or online application system for legal aid, which must be supported by a Statement of Financial Circumstances.
The courts will continue to grant legal aid, but will be able to impose a condition that the granting of legal aid is subject to a further assessment of income by the LAB, where deemed necessary.
The board will also be able to recommend that applicants have sufficient means to pay some of their own legal costs, rather than having them paid for entirely by the State.
It will also be open to a court to refer a person to the board for an assessment of income, if they fail or refuse to provide information on their financial means.
Under the bill, anyone who knowingly or recklessly makes false or misleading statements about their financial circumstances, or another person’s financial circumstances, will be guilty of an offence that could lead to a €4,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment.
It will also be open to the court to amend the terms on which legal aid is granted.
The bill will also extend the type of assistance that the LAB can provide to include legal advice for victims of offences such as rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of minors and people with mental illness or intellectual disability.
This advice can be provided even where it is decided not to make a complaint or proceed with a prosecution.
“This will be an important element of ensuring victims of some of the most sensitive and psychologically damaging crimes are better supported at every step in their journey through the criminal-justice system,” said Minister for Justice Helen McEntee (pictured).
The minister also expressed confidence that the LAB was “appropriately positioned” to manage and administer the system effectively. The criminal legal-aid budget last year amounted to €81.2 million.
The bill will now be referred to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Earlier this month, the Council of The Bar of Ireland recommended a one-day strike by criminal barristers who are seeking an increase in fees under the scheme.