Total expenditure on Criminal Legal Aid for 2012 came to €50.5 million, a reduction of 10% over 2011 (€56.1million). This reduction in the annual expenditure is the largest ever recorded and represents a fall of approximately €10 million, or 16%, over the peak recorded in 2009.
Under the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act, 1962, the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. An applicant for legal aid must establish to the satisfaction of the court that his/her means are insufficient to enable him/her to pay for legal aid him/herself. The 1962 Act specifies that the court must also be satisfied that, by reason of the "gravity of the charge" or "exceptional circumstances", it is essential in the interests of justice that the applicant should have legal aid. An applicant's previous convictions are not a criterion under the Act and the information sought by the Deputy could not be obtained without a disproportionate use of resources. Criminal prosecutions originate in the District Court and I can inform the Deputy that the District Courts granted 54,092 criminal legal aid certificates in 2011 and 49,639 in 2012. More than one certificate may be granted to any one person.
The Deputy will appreciate that an accused person who faces serious charges is entitled to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence and if he/she cannot afford to pay for legal representation there is a right to legal aid. Under the Constitution, the State is obliged to provide an accused person with the means to obtain appropriate legal representation. In addition, Article 6(3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that every person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to defend him/herself in person or through legal assistance of his/her own choosing or, if he/she has insufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require. The Deputy will appreciate that the criminal legal aid scheme must operate with due regard to these rights and that any unreasonable block on legal aid could give a convicted defendant an avenue for appeal or prohibition of the prosecution. My overriding concern is to ensure that no risk arises in relation to the prosecution of persons charged with criminal offences before the courts.