The Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Bill is currently at drafting stage with work ongoing. This new legislation will update and strengthen the system of granting legal aid including transferring responsibility for the administration of the Scheme to the Legal Aid Board. Consideration is being given to including in the Bill provisions to, inter alia, regulate better the taking of statements of means, increase the sanction for false declarations, allow the Board to verify the means of applicants and to prosecute cases of abuse. Provision to give power to the Legal Aid Board to recover the costs of criminal legal aid or to make application to a court to revoke a criminal legal aid certificate are also under consideration. These provisions must have regard to a person's rights to the presumption of innocence, to a fair trial and to be given legal aid where appropriate.
The present legislation, the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962, provides that free legal aid may be granted in certain circumstances for the defence of persons of insufficient means in criminal proceedings. Under the 1962 Act, the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. An applicant must establish to the satisfaction of the court that his/her means are insufficient to enable him/her to pay for legal representation him/herself. 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 for access to legal aid under the Act. I have no function in these matters which are determined by the judiciary.
Under the Constitution, the State is obliged to provide an accused person with the means to obtain appropriate legal representation. Moreover, 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 also 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. The overriding concern is to ensure that no risk arises in relation to the prosecution of persons charged with criminal offences before the courts.