Recent years have seen the introduction of a number of unpopular new legal aid reforms. However, the most recent reform to be announced has proved rather more popular within the legal industry than any of the recent funding cuts and restrictions of access. Under changes outlined by the Ministry of Justice recently, the Legal Aid Agency would gain power over the assets of convicted criminals in order to recoup legal aid costs associated with providing their defence.
Under the new rules, which must gain parliamentary approval before they come into force, “restrained” assets belonging to those who are convicted of the charges against them. This is designed to offset the cost of providing legal aid to individuals who are, according to the verdict of the court, guilty. Other outstanding defence costs could also be paid by the seizure of such “restrained” assets. Usually, these are profits or items of value gained or believed to be gained as a result criminal activities.
Currently such assets are restrained under 2002’s Proceeds of Crime Act. While restrained, the assets cannot be spent, moved or otherwise utilised by the defendant. If the defendant is subsequently convicted, the court may confiscate these assets.
Other considerations would continue to take priority over the reclamation of legal costs, the Ministry of Justice said. First, compensation and confiscation orders benefitting the victims of the crime will be fulfilled. If any assets are left over when the victims have, as far as possible, had their property returned and/or received all compensation due, the Legal Aid Agency will then have a claim to those remaining assets in order to recoup costs.
The move is designed to relieve strain on the legal aid budget by reclaiming a portion of the money spent on defending the guilty. According to the Ministry of Justice, estimates suggest that this could result in savings of up to £2 million in legal aid costs every year.
Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, welcomed the move. He said: “For too long people convicted of crimes have avoided paying what they owe. Legal aid is taxpayers’ money and we have a duty to make sure it is not being spent on those we believe can afford to pay towards their legal costs.”
Grayling also described the changes as a “vital further step in making the legal aid system fair and credible.”
If they gain parliamentary approval, these changes could take effect as soon as the 1st of June this year.