Galway West TD Noel Grealish has secured a commitment from the Government that it will look into the possibility of forcing serial offenders to repay the costs of legal aid that is currently provided to them free of charge for their defence in court.
The Independent TD raised the issue during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil last week when he pointed out that four out of five burglars released from prison in Ireland go on to re-offend within a short period — more than half of them within a year of their release. It was the same with people jailed for public order offences.
“Their victims, the very people they robbed from and whose lives they have seriously disrupted, have to pay for these criminals to get a proper defence, as does every other law-abiding taxpayer in this country.
“Last year, the bill to the taxpayer for providing free legal aid in criminal cases was more than €76 million. In the past seven years, we have paid out in excess of €450 million in free legal aid.
“A large portion of this money is being spent on defending the indefensible — people who have no regard for the law or the consequences of their actions, who have broken the law on countless occasions and who know that every time that they are caught they will get the best defence in court without it costing them one red cent.”
Deputy Grealish said that when he had in the past raised the issue of withholding free legal aid to persistent offenders who have broken the law on countless occasions, he had been informed that this would be constitutionally impossible.
“In that case, we should change the law so that these repeat offenders, often with hundreds of convictions behind them, must over a period at least repay the cost of providing that legal aid.
“That is to say we should be deducting from the pay they get from their employers until the debt is repaid. In the case of those drawing social welfare, the same should be done. A certain amount of money should be withheld from their weekly payments,” he added.
Deputy Grealish asked the Taoiseach if repayment of free legal aid costs in the case of persistent offenders could be included in the proposed new Criminal Justice (Legal Aid ) Bill.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar agreed that it was “a matter of enormous annoyance” to people that those who have multiple convictions get legal aid paid for by the State, but stressed that the Constitution obliges that the State provide an accused person with the means to obtain appropriate legal representation.
“The Deputy touched on the possibility of recouping some of the cost from people who have been convicted, not making the presumption that they may or may not be guilty, but if they receive legal aid and are subsequently found guilty, whether some of the cost could be recouped.
“That is definitely an idea worth exploring in context of the Criminal Legal Aid Bill, and I will certainly raise that with the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and see if it is possible,” Mr Varadkar adde