The proposals have been set out on consultation paper which seeks to make sure that there is full compliance with the requirements of the Crown Court means-testing scheme.
£700 million a year is spent on criminal legal aid and the government estimates that less than 20% of what should be recovered in contributions is currently collected. Any defendant who appears in the Crown Court is entitled to legal aid but there will be a means-testing procedure carried out to see whether or not they have the means to pay a contribution towards that legal aid. The current system employs a specified collection agency to pursue the individual offenders for their contributions, however, many people are avoiding payment.
The consultation proposes that the government should introduce powers to seize and sell vehicles if legal aid contributions remain unpaid. Part of the problem is also the fact that those applying for legal aid are seen to refuse to provide financial information to properly judge their contribution, or alternatively hide assets which may come to light later once the contribution has been assessed. Therefore the government also proposes to introduce measures that mean that if a defendant fails to comply with providing the necessary financial information they could be pursued for the entire cost of their case and also introducing the ability to adjust the contribution if further assets or earnings are discovered once their contribution has been assessed.
It is currently estimated that less than a fifth of the money owed to the taxpayer in legal aid contributions is recovered and last year alone just £1.8 million of the £10 million the court directed should be repaid was recovered.
The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said "convicted criminals have cheated innocent taxpayers for too long by dodging requirements to contribute to the legal aid costs of their defence. It is not right that law-abiding citizens foot the bill when those concerned can pay. These proposals set out robust measures that will see more costs recouped from criminals. This includes measures like seizing assets, such as cars, from criminals who attempt to evade paying back these fees by hiding income and savings".
The consultation is due to close on 11th December 2012 following which the government will consider what further steps to take.
The above is not legal advice, it is intended to provide information of general interest in current legal issues.