The Criminal Defence Service Bill, which includes provisions to ensure that defendants who can afford to pay for their defence costs are made to do so, today received Royal Assent.  

The new Act paves the way for the introduction of a new means testing scheme under which high earners will no longer receive free criminal legal aid representation.

The Criminal Defence Service Bill, which includes provisions to ensure that defendants who can afford to pay for their defence costs are made to do so, today received Royal Assent. The new Act paves the way for the introduction of a new means testing scheme under which high earners will no longer receive free criminal legal aid representation.

The new scheme will be implemented in the Magistrates' Courts from 2 October 2006, and is likely to be rolled out across Crown Courts by the end of 2007.

The process to determine whether a defendant is financially eligible for criminal legal aid representation will be simple to understand and straightforward to administer. The test will be based on a series of upper and lower thresholds that will be weighted to take account of household composition. An initial filter stage will determine which defendants are financially eligible or ineligible because they either fall below the lower threshold or above the upper threshold.

For those defendants who fall between the two, determination of financial eligibility will depend on a more rigorous assessment. This will incorporate a system of allowances covering housing, child care and maintenance costs.

Higher earners will be expected to meet the full costs of representation before the Magistrates' Court, although in the Crown Court a system of contributions will be applied. Privately funded defendants who are subsequently acquitted will in the vast majority of cases be able to recover some or all of their legal costs from central funds.

The Government anticipates that the rollout of the new means testing scheme in the Magistrates' Courts alone will in due course deliver annual savings of at least ?35 million.

Notes to editors:

1. Once the provisions of the Criminal Defence Service Act are implemented, an applicant wishing to qualify for criminal legal aid representation will need to satisfy both the existing "Interests of Justice" test, as well as the new means test. The "Interests of Justice" test seeks to determine whether the defendant needs to be represented by a lawyer (eg; where conviction is likely to result in a custodial sentence, or where conviction is likely to result in a loss of livelihood). The means test seeks to determine whether it is right that the state should pay for that defence, or whether such costs should fall to the defendant.

2. The final thresholds to be adopted under the new means testing scheme will be published in the Regulations under the new Act.

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