153. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Justice her plans to introduce legislation that will provide for an enhanced and more transparent process in respect of the way in which criminal defence solicitors are selected. [59263/21]
Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): Criminal Legal Aid is a vital element of the criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Act 1962 gives expression to the Constitutional right that free legal aid must 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 on application by the defence in court. My Department has no influence in the granting of legal aid or in the appointment of solicitors to a case.
Defence solicitors are either engaged privately by their client or appointed as part of Court proceedings. In relation to the latter, legal services are provided by private solicitors who have notified the relevant Court of their availability to undertake legal aid work. As per Regulation 4 of the Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) Regulations 1965 (S. I. No. 12 of 1965) each County Registrar is required to maintain a list of solicitors who are willing to act in that county for persons to whom certificates for free legal aid are granted.
The Criminal Justice (Legal Aid) (Tax Clearance Certificate) Regulations 1999 (S. I. No 135 of 1999) provide that a solicitor who wishes to have their name added to or retained on the panel which is maintained by the County Registrar, must furnish a printed copy of their electronic Tax Clearance Certificate to the County Registrar(s) annually dated after 30 November of the year prior to which inclusion on the panel(s) is sought to be retained. My Department is responsible for the payment of fees and expenses to the legal practitioners.
A General Scheme of a Criminal Legal Aid Bill is being prepared the key purpose of which will be to transfer the administration of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme to the Legal Aid Board and to otherwise update the administration of criminal legal aid.
The agreed Programme for Government also includes a commitment to "independently examine the option of a dedicated system of public defenders".
Terms of Reference for this review, taking into account international best practice and equality of arms between prosecution and defence, are being finalised. This work aims to ensure that the tender for the independent examination envisaged in the Programme for Government results in an evidence based analysis of the costs and benefits associated with the policy choices for introducing a Public Defender System, not only in terms of the direct and indirect financial costs of establishment, but also taking account of the possible economic and other impacts of such a model on the wider system. This examination will help to inform, identify and develop the objectives of any potential changes to the existing system. It is intended that a tender for the independent examination will be issued in early 2022.
Such a system would be a major change and it is important that the implications be carefully considered before any policy decision is reached.