343. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Justice and Equality her views on a matter (details supplied) regarding free legal aid; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40684/15]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 provides that free legal aid may be granted in certain circumstances for the defence of persons of insufficient means in criminal proceedings. Under the 1962 Act, the courts, through the judiciary, are responsible for the granting of legal aid. An applicant must establish to the satisfaction of the court that their means are insufficient to enable them to pay for legal representation themselves. The court must also be satisfied that, by reason of the "gravity of the charge" or "exceptional circumstances", it is essential in the interests of justice that the applicant should have legal aid. An applicant's previous convictions are not a criterion for access to legal aid under the Act. I have no function in these matters which are determined by the judiciary.
These provisions must have regard to the right to a fair trial, including the provision of legal aid where appropriate, which is a Constitutional right upheld by the courts in a number of judgments. The Supreme Court ruling in the case of State (Healy) v Donoghue I.R. 325 effectively determined that the right to criminal legal aid is, in circumstances which are quite wide in practice, a Constitutional right. Article 6(3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights states that " Everyone charged with a criminal offence has [the right] to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require". As the Deputy will be aware, an accused person is entitled to a presumption of innocence and legal representation and any obstacles to obtaining necessary legal aid which were found to be unreasonable could give a defendant an avenue for appeal or prohibition of the prosecution. The overriding concern is to ensure that no risk arises in relation to the prosecution of persons charged with criminal offences before the courts.
I can inform the Deputy that a new Criminal Legal Aid Bill is currently being drafted to update and strengthen the system of granting legal aid including transferring responsibility for the administration of the Scheme to the Legal Aid Board. Legislative provisions being prepared include provisions to enable the Board to investigate the means of a person to whom legal aid was granted and determine, if it be the case, that the person can afford to pay the costs or a portion thereof and direct them to pay the amount calculated as being owed. Legislation will provide for powers to revoke the criminal legal aid certificate and sanctions for providing false or misleading information for the purpose of obtaining legal aid.