Rich crooks net vast legal aid sums
Dozens of super-rich criminals - some worth tens of millions - have received vast sums in legal aid despite their illicit fortunes, an investigation has revealed.
Rich criminals receive legal aid because their assets have been frozen. But there is evidence many of these crooks remain wealthy despite the asset-freezes.
And a joint-investigation between BBC Inside Out and the London Evening Standard has found nearly 50 defendants with more than £1m in illegally obtained assets have received legal aid.
Over the last three years the defendants got an average of £300,000.
In light of the investigation, some of the country's most eminent barristers have told Inside Out there is an urgent need for reform.
Syed Ahmed and Shakeel Ahmad masterminded one of Britain's biggest ever tax frauds.
Their complex scam involved setting up fake companies to pay each other VAT on high value computer hardware.
They then exported the goods to Europe and claimed the tax back from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
It netted the pair £32m - stolen directly from the taxpayer.
Among their assets were a £4.5m apartment in Knightsbridge, a £2.5m 10-bedroom house in leafy Harrow and a riverside penthouse in Battersea, south-west London.
The pair also purchased a home in Buckinghamshire - and two tower blocks in Dubai.
But when they were finally brought before the courts, their legal costs were covered by the taxpayer.
Exactly how much the defendants received remains secret because the Legal Services Commission refuses to disclose what they deem "sensitive personal data".
But Inside Out has learned they got at least £100,000 each.
Yet the duo are far from being the only ones to benefit.
Yacht-owning multi-millionaire and VAT fraudster Raymond May received more than £400,000 in legal aid.
And even that figure pales before the sum given to Virendra Rastogi.
Once featured in the Sunday Times Rich List, Rastogi owned a £6m Mayfair home.
During his fraud trial, he arrived in court every day by chauffeur-driven car - yet he received more than £5m of legal aid.
The annual government budget for legal aid is more than £2bn - and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald QC, says a large proportion of that goes to a few wealthy criminals.
He argues that the situation worsened at the beginning of the last decade, when the government decided people with frozen assets should not be able to use their wealth to fund their own defence.
"But it's well-known a high proportion of the criminal legal aid budget is consumed by a small number of very complex cases in which the defence lawyers' costs can be very high," he told Inside Out.
"People worth tens of millions [are] getting money from the state to fund representation in criminal cases - it's completely wrong.
"It does rather stick in the craw that very wealthy defendants are getting legal aid - and people who have housing or welfare difficulties are told, 'Too bad'."
Once criminals are found guilty, judges can issue confiscation orders, forcing them to repay illegal profits and legal aid.
But Inside Out's investigation suggests these orders are often worthless because criminals use every tactic possible to avoid paying up.
The amount of outstanding confiscation orders currently stands at well over £1bn.
Inside Out has obtained a list revealing dozens of names who have failed to pay up after court demands.
It includes Ahmed and Ahmad, who still owe the £32m they were ordered to hand back - plus interest.
Also on the list are north London-based Maythem Al-Ansari and Eyad Iktilat, who controlled a 33-strong, multimillion-pound drugs gang.
But Ansari fled the country without paying a penny and the pair owe more than £2.5m.
Lord Macdonald said: "Criminal cases are littered with examples of people ordered to pay money who wriggle out of it for years and years - sometimes for good.
"Much simpler [would be] to say this man can afford his own lawyers, he can be required to pay his legal bills himself out of his restrained assets. If he's acquitted he gets the money back, if he's convicted he won't."
The Ministry of Justice declined to be interviewed, but a spokesman said: "Offenders who can afford to contribute to the cost of their defence should do so.
"Reforms to asset freezing are currently being considered to ensure that both proceeds of crime and legal aid costs are recovered.
"We want to collect more money, not just change how the money we currently seize from criminals is distributed."
As wealthy criminals see their legal aid funded by the taxpayer, poor people in need of aid may see their help slashed.
Changes are under way that will chop £350m off the national legal aid bill.
South West London Law Centre, in Croydon, says the change means the service it provides to needy clients will be under threat.
Chief executive Patrick Marples said: "The majority of the clients [we see] are helped through legal aid.
"The law centre helps people rebuild their lives through the casework we do for them.
"We will stop being able to do that case work anymore."
Lord Carlile QC, another of the UK's most senior barristers, added: "There will be people who will be deprived of their civil remedies because of the reductions in legal aid."
BBC Inside Out is on BBC One in the London region on Monday, 26 November at 19:30 GMT and nationwide on the iPlayer for seven days thereafter.