As the constraints on public spending are tightening, Legal Aid for criminal defence is an easy target for savage cuts. The result is that all criminal defence legal aid is now means-tested.
If you are a defendant earning even a modest salary you are likely to be asked to pay a monthly contribution to the costs of your defence at Crown Court. This will amount to 90% of the amount that the Legal Services Commission consider to be your disposable income. For many people on average income this will be a significant sum.
Also, if you have savings or equity in your home greater than £30,000 you will be expected to pay ALL of your legal aid defence costs from this sum. Many criminal defence solicitors are not aware of (or don't care about) these potential financial consequences for their clients. What many clients do not realise is that criminal defence legal aid costs are not determined by how much work the lawyers do, but by how many pages of evidence the prosecution serve whether they are relevant or not. The following example shows the potential problems.
A defendant charged with fraud is committed for trial at the Crown Court. He is on benefits but owns his own house with £45,000 equity. The prosecutor serves 2,800 pages of evidence mainly comprising documentary exhibits that are of limited evidential value.
On advice from his lawyers he pleads not guilty and the matter is set down for trial. Further evidence is then served before trial and the defendant decides to change his plea after the judge indicates that a prison sentence will be avoided if he pleads guilty. This is called a "cracked trial".
The total legal aid defence costs for the solicitor and barrister combined will be in excess of £25,000 plus VAT. All of this is due from the defendant and will be sought from the equity in his home. The LSC will place a charge on the house and the amount owed will increase by approximately 8% each year until the LSC hand the debt to a private debt collector for enforcement.
Had this defendant spoken to us first, we would have agreed a low hourly rate that could have saved him thousands of pounds. We also offer all clients a guarantee that if you are not completely satisfied with any aspect of the service we provide preparing a case for trial we will not charge you for that work.
Changes in legal aid funding in 2012 have further confused the picture. There is now a presumption that all defendants in the Crown Court will obtain legal aid. Any defendant paying privately will not be able to have the legal costs reimbursed if they are found not guilty. Any legal aid contributions will be repaid. The decision to seek legal aid is not straight-forward.
If legal fees are a concern to you, contact us to discuss how your assets can be protected while you still receive a high-quality legal defence.
Call now 08444 936 057 to have a free consultation with a specialist solicitor