The service, first introduced in 1962, costs more than €50 million annually, with the bulk of expenditure going on fees fordefence lawyers. Costs have soared in the past five years, from €26.7m in 2004 to in excess of €55m last year.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said he intends to introduce legislation to tighten controls.
“I have been concerned about the mounting expenditure on criminal legal aid,” the minister said in a written Dáil reply to Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan.
“In that context, I am bringing forward a bill to amend the current system with a view to ensuring that, while accused persons of insufficient means who are facing serious charges are entitled to have a defence provided for them, there are tight controls against any abuse of the scheme.”
Mr Ahern said that a wide-ranging consultation has taken place within the system, including discussions with the judiciary, the Garda, the Courts Service and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
According to figures released to the Irish Examiner by the Department of Justice, the cost of the system amounted to €55,276,164 in 2008, a figure likely to be matched or even exceeded this year.
The cost this year up to the end of October is already almost €48m.
Three criminal defence solicitors made more than €1m each in legal aid fees last year, as the cost of the scheme soared to a record high. Overall, solicitors shared in a total of €33.3m, while barristers earned €19.6m.
The top-earning solicitor last year was Dublin-based Michael J Staines at just under €1.4m. He was followed by John M Quinn at €1.18m, the top-earning woman solicitor Yvonne Bambury at €1.1m and Cork-based Frank Buttimer at €945,760.
Some 38 solicitors earned more than €200,000 each in criminal legal aid fees while 84 made more than €100,000.
The highest paid barrister last year was Brian McInerney, at €437,479, followed by Luigi Rea at €369,952 and Blaise O’Carroll at €362,149. Twenty three barristers were paid more than €200,000 under the scheme last year.
A bill is currently being drafted to include the following measures:
* Compulsory means test in cases where the gardaí/DPP object to the granting of legal aid.
* The solicitor for every applicant for legal aid must produce his client’s PPSN.
* Require those with some means to make a contribution towards the cost of their defence.
* Give the court power to withdraw a legal aid certificate in certain circumstances.
* Substantially increase the penalties for fraud.
* Restrict power to grant additional counsel to the trial court.