Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has, as of today, implemented new measures in order to recover debts owed by convicted criminals in respect of their legal aid bills.
Means testing was first introduced in respect of criminal cases being heard at the Crown Court in 2010. The effect of this was that whilst the majority of people facing charges in the Crown Court would still be eligible for legal aid, approximately one in four who had been granted representation would be ordered to make a contribution towards their legal aid costs. The amount required would vary according to their income and assets, and a monthly amount would be requested throughout proceedings.
The Government has indicated, however, that since the introduction of means testing, £34 million remains outstanding from those who were convicted of criminal offences and deemed financially able to contribute to their fees. Given the current climate, Grayling is keen to be seen to make a stance, stating that:
“Convicted criminals have cheated innocent taxpayers for too long by dodging requirements to contribute to the legal costs of their defence. I am determined that where they can pay, they will pay.
“Legal aid is not free – it is taxpayers’ money. We must bring down the cost of legal aid and our starting point has to be that law-abiding citizens don’t foot the bill when those concerned could pay themselves.”
Motor Vehicle Orders
Accordingly, in April 2013 changes were made in order to prevent persons from refusing to participate in the means testing scheme. As part of this initiative, as of today the Legal Aid Agency can apply to the Courts for Motor Vehicle Orders. These give them the power to clamp any vehicles proven to be owned by a defendant. Should they subsequently be convicted, the LAA can apply for permission to sell the vehicles in question, with the money raised being put towards any unpaid legal bills.
It is unclear how popular, or financially beneficial, these orders will be in the long term. Clearly there will be cost implications in respect of applying for and implementing these orders, and the value of the vehicles will vary, in some cases not covering the additional costs. It is, however, clear that the Government will not tolerate those refusing to participate in the means testing scheme any further and are looking to use whatever means possible to recover outstanding debts.