Criminals cost taxpayers £17m in legal aid bills
CONVICTED criminals have received more than £17 million in legal aid to challenge the verdicts of Scottish courts over the past five years, it has been revealed.
Taxpayers helped fund more than 10,000 appeals, even though only one in 20 was successful in overturning a conviction.
With the cost of legal aid for criminals set to soar in coming years as more cases are referred to the Supreme Court in London as the final court of appeal, taxpayers' groups warned yesterday that the situation was "spiralling out of control".
In the past year alone, the number of criminals receiving legal aid for appeals has increased by 6 per cent north of the Border. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information legislation show that between 2005 and 2010, a total of 17,573,270 was spent on legal aid appeals.
Earlier this year, Scotland on Sunday revealed that Luke Mitchell had received 112,000 in legal aid for numerous unsuccessful appeals against his 2005 conviction for murdering his girlfriend Jodi Jones. It is believed that he also received legal aid for last week's failed attempt to have his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. It is now understood that his legal advisers are considering a direct application to the UK Supreme Court for the case to be heard.
A total of 1,783 convicted criminals received money in 2008/09, but the number swelled to 1,891 last year.
The latest official figures show that three-quarters of criminal appeals in Scotland are abandoned or dismissed. Just 5 per cent result in a conviction being overturned. In 20 per cent of cases, criminals get their sentences reduced.
The growing power of the Supreme Court, the highest in the UK, to overrule Scottish court decisions is seen by critics as fuelling the growth in legal aid spending.
Judges at the Supreme Court recently ruled that Scottish businessman Nat Fraser, 52, had his right to a fair trial breached by prosecutors who secured a conviction for killing his wife Arlene, 33, in 1998.
Last October, the Supreme Court ruled that suspects in Scotland could not be interviewed by police without a lawyer present. Known as the Cadder ruling, it could result in as many as 3,500 legal aid-funded appeals.
Emma Boon, campaign director at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "It is unsustainable to keep handing out massive sums of taxpayers' money, lining the pockets of solicitors and advocates. Legal aid is supposed to be there for those who are really in need of it, not as an endless pot of money for criminals to abuse with endless appeals."
A spokeswoman for Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, a charity which helps the families of crime victims in Scotland, said: "It certainly is not justified. The whole thing makes a mockery of the scales of justice because it is weighted in favour of perpetrators of crime rather than the victims of crime.
"Why is it always victims that have to suffer the cutbacks while the perpetrators get all the perks? It is ridiculous."However, John Scott, a lawyer who specialises in human rights cases, insisted "no limits" ought to exist when it comes to overturning a potential miscarriage of justice. He said: "The appeal system is an essential part of the fair trial process. Considering that this is the figure over a five-year period, the people of Scotland are actually getting good value for money because some very important points have been considered over the last five years."
"Limbs-in-the-Loch" killer William Beggs is estimated to have added more than 1m to the legal aid bill in challenges from behind bars. Beggs is serving a 20-year minimum sentence after being found guilty of the horrific murder of teenager Barry Wallace, from Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, in October 2001. Beggs last year failed in a bid to have his conviction overturned after a nine-year legal battle.
A spokesman for the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) said: "In the small number of cases in which legal aid is granted by the board, we assess whether they are financially eligible, according to the tests set by parliament. The board works within the parameters of the justice system and its legislation. Legal aid fees for solicitors and counsel are set by the Scottish Parliament."
The spokesman added there was no cap on legal aid, neither on the number of times a person can apply nor on the total that can be spent on an individual.
"We assess all accounts to check that we only pay for work that is necessary and done with due regard to economy," he said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Any legal aid application is a matter for the Scottish Legal Aid Board and subject to the usual statutory tests. However, access to justice for those who could not otherwise afford it is an issue that the Scottish Government takes very seriously and for which it provides substantial levels of funding."
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