Legal aid is a human right, even for politicians

14 April 2010 by

Three MPs who are being prosecuted for their role in the parliamentary expenses scandal have been granted legal aid.

However, contrary to what the the Prime Minister said yesterday afternoon, Jim Devine, David Chaytor and Elliot Morley will only have to pay back the money if they are found guilty.

The case and ensuing political furore highlight two important aspects of the legal aid scheme from a human rights perspective.

First, that financial legal assistance in criminal cases is a human right. As Joshua Rozenberg points out on his Standpoint Blog:

Article 6(3)(c) of the Human Rights Convention says that everyone charged with a criminal offence has the right to defend himself through legal assistance of his own chosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require.

The second important point is that from June, the right to legal aid in serious criminal prosecutions will be limited by the introduction of means testing.

The scheme is undergoing significant changes primarily in order save costs. In 2008/9 £2.186 billion was spent on legal aid, with 53% spent in the criminal courts, amounting to 1/630 of government expenditure. In order to reduce that figure, from June 28 this year criminal legal aid in the Crown Court, where more serious criminal offences are tried, will become means tested. Legal aid in the Magistrates’ Courts, where less serious offences are tried, is already subject to means testing. The Legal Services Commission now hopes to save a further £35m per year.

From June, anyone with a net (i.e. after tax) disposable income of more than £3,398 per year and with capital of over £10,000 will have to contribute to their own legal expenses when prosecuted in the Crown Court. As such, the three MPs would probably not receive full legal aid under the new scheme.

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