Absolutely criminal: Prisoners receive £17m in legal aid


By Alan Robertson


CONVICTED criminals have received more than 17m in legal aid to challenge the verdicts of Scottish courts over the past five years.

Taxpayers helped fund more than 10,000 appeals, even though only one in 20 was successful in overturning a conviction.

And the cost of legal aid for criminal appeals is set to soar as a growing number of Scottish cases come before the London-based Supreme Court.

In the past year alone, the number of criminals receiving legal aid for appeals has increased by 6% north of the border.

Taxpayers’ groups warned spending on legal aid for appeals was

“spiralling out of control.”

It wasrevealed earlier this year that notorious murderer Luke Mitchell had received 112,000 in legal aid for numerous, unsuccessful appeals.

New figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that between 2005 and 2010, a total of 17,573,270 was spent on legal aid for criminal appeals.

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% result in a conviction being overturned. In the remaining 20% of cases, criminals manage to get their sentences reduced.

The power of the Supreme Court, the highest in the UK,to overrule Scottish court decisions is now seen by critics as fuelling the growth in legal aid spendingas criminals seek redress south of the border.

Luke Mitchell, serving life for the 2003 murder of schoolgirl Jodi Jones, is understood to have received legal aid for last week’s unsuccessful attempt to have his case referred to the Supreme Court.

And 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 3,500extralegal 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 spokeswomanfor Mothers Against Murder and Aggression (MAMAA), 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 over 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.

The Ulsterman handcuffed the 18-year-old and subjected him to a sexual assault before dumping the limbs and torso in Loch Lomond, and the head in the sea.

Beggs last year failed in a bid to have his conviction overturned after a nine-year long 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 justice system and its legislation. Legal aid fees for solicitors and counsel are set by the Scottish Parliament. “

The spokesmanadded 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. “