Board tackles 'rich' loopholes

THE LEGAL Aid Board is conducting “on the ground” research into legal aid loopholes which allow apparently wealthy people to claim public funds.

The board wants to devise its own proposals, which will follow last week's publication of the Law Society's views on how the rules can be tightened up.

The need for action was highlighted by a recent high-profile case involving a gang of fraudsters who lived a life of luxury on social security payments. The legal aid bill for the case is estimated at u750,000.

Alison Macnair, policy adviser to the board, says better systems are needed and she welcomes the interest the society has shown.

The board is carrying out its own research involving discussions with the Department of Social Security at Preston which is responsible for means-testing in civil cases. Officials from the board have also met up with magistrates from the City of London.

Proposals will be put to the board's criminal legal aid committee before they are passed on to the Lord Chancellor by the end of December.

The society has already suggested that the onus should be on the applicants to explain how they support themselves. The value of expensive houses should be taken into account and the rule which requires assessors to disregard assets, which form part of any litigation, should be modified. The society also recommends that sufficient funds to meet legal costs should be left untouched when courts freeze assets.

Society president Charles Elly says Government cuts have meant that many people living slightly above the poverty line are no longer able to obtain legal aid.

“That makes it galling to see many apparently wealthy individuals getting legal aid through loopholes,” he says.

Roberta Tish, committee member of the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group, says new rules will need to be carefully formulated. She adds that recent debate on the subject has tended to be xenophobic.