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UK cuts legal aid for higher income earners

[JURIST] A new law coming into effect Monday in England and Wales requires criminal defendants to pass a financial means test [materials] to qualify for free legal aid in cases before magistrates' courts. The Criminal Defence Service Act of 2006 [materials; backgrounder], which received royal assent at the end of March, aims to cut down on legal expenses shouldered by the state in criminal cases and potentially stem abuse by rich defendants, but opponents say it will slow the processing of cases with another administrative hurdle. Under the new regulations, defendants qualify for legal aid on gross income adjusted for marital and childrearing costs, and some categories of people automatically qualify for free legal aid, including those who are unemployed or on income support, children under 16 and students under 18. It's estimated that the measure could save more than £35 million a year and supporters hope it will avoid awkward scenarios such as that of an English cricket star earning £40,000 a week who used legal aid to defend against a charge of spitting at a fan. Under the means test, defendants with annual incomes of over £20,740 (just over US $39,000) do not qualify for assistance.

Previous attempts by UK lawmakers to cut legal defense costs include a proposal to require law firms to bid on bulk contracts [JURIST report] to represent defendants in magistrates' and crown courts, and to require lawyers themselves to pay court costs [JURIST report] if trials run longer than scheduled. Reuters has more.

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