The announcement by the Minister for Justice that he intends to transfer the operation of the criminal legal aid system to the Legal Aid Board might seem like it makes sense, but is likely to result in delays and possibly higher costs.
Currently, the Legal Aid Board administers the civil legal aid scheme and deals almost exclusively with family law matters. It meets clients and assesses their means. Often the Board handles the client’s case itself from one of its law centres. In some cases, the Board refers the client to a private solicitor and issues a certificate to cover costs (with the Board paying the solicitor’s fees according to set rates). Due to increased demands on the system (as noted by the Minister himself), it appears to be increasingly common for the Board to refer clients to private solicitors.
The criminal legal aid scheme is administered by the Courts Service, with an application being made to the judge who first deals with an accused person. The assessment of means is done by the judge and can often be far less formal than that applied by the Board. For example, if the judge is told that the accused is not working and has no significant assets, (s)he may issue a certificate immediately to cover the costs of the defence. (There is no connection between the State funded legal aid schemes and the volunteer-led Free Legal Advice Centres.)
Having the two systems in operation may seem an unnecessary duplication, but there are differences in the demands made of each. Generally, criminal cases will move faster and involve more urgency. The Minister says the change is aimed at cutting costs and improving efficiency, so it is interesting to read the reaction of Frank Brady, director of legal aid at the LAB:
“There is no expertise and very little knowledge of criminal legal aid [in the Legal Aid Board]. The two systems are fundamentally different, and the board will face a difficult learning curve. Nevertheless, the board would welcome the opportunity to play a lead role in the future development of the criminal legal aid service.”
In the long run, streamlining the two schemes might make sense, but this story does not engender optimism. Rather, it appears we are faced with a rash decision to be rushed through the Oireachtas, followed by a period of disruption and delay.