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Page last updated at 19:47 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 20:47 UK

Expenses MPs Devine, Chaytor and Morley get legal aid

Clockwise from top left - Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Lord Hanningfield
Mr Morley, Mr Chaytor, Mr Devine and Lord Hanningfield deny the charges

Three former Labour MPs facing criminal charges over their expenses will have their legal fees paid by the taxpayer.

David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine will receive legal aid, an HM Courts Service spokesman confirmed.

Tory peer Lord Hanningfield, who also faces charges, has not applied for legal aid. All four deny the charges.

The former MPs have got legal aid under an outgoing "interests of justice" test as they may face prison if convicted. The decision is made by the court.

When asked after a visit to a Cheshire car plant whether MPs facing expenses charges should get legal aid, Prime Minister Gordon Brown did not answer.

But Chancellor Alistair Darling told Sky News he was "puzzled" by the award of legal aid to the MPs, and acknowledged the public would be "hopping mad" over the decision.

Conservative leader David Cameron said granting legal aid to the MPs was a "complete outrage" and promised to review the system.

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said the news was a "slap in the face for every decent taxpayer in this country".

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said people would be "dismayed" that taxpayers' money was being used to defend these allegations.

'Interests of justice'

The HM Courts Service spokesman said an application for legal aid for the three men was granted on Friday.

Mr Justice Saunders will hear their case during a two-day hearing at Southwark Crown Court from 27 May.

BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said that officials applied the "interests of justice" test to determine whether the MPs should receive legal aid.

The test says if a defendant is at risk of losing his or her liberty - that is, they could go to prison if convicted - then they are entitled to legal representation paid for by the state.

Individual courts decide who to aid "in the interests of justice"
Means testing trials being rolled out across England and Wales
In the future, applicants earning more than £283 per month or with £30,000 in assets will contribute
Courts can order defendants to repay part of their defence after a trial
Total repaid by defendants in last financial year after a judge's order at the end of a trial: £1m
Total legal aid budget: £2.1bn

The "interests of justice" test began to be phased out in January to be replaced by a means test for all Crown Court cases in England and Wales - but Southwark Crown Court is not yet part of the new scheme, so it did not apply to the MPs.

Justice Minister Jack Straw told the BBC: "It is simply a matter of chance that [the means test] is yet to be introduced in Southwark, where the former MPs are being tried.

"Decisions about legal aid are made by the courts, and MPs and ministers have no control over the award of legal aid in individual cases."

However, if the MPs are convicted the trial judge could order them to pay back all or some of the costs of the case.

The MPs - who have instructed barristers to argue their cases - have all been suspended by the Labour Party, while Lord Hanningfield has been suspended by the Conservatives.

All four are accused of theft by false accounting and if found guilty, face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Police began investigating after details of all MPs' expenses claims were leaked to the Daily Telegraph.

The men's lawyers have said that they intended to argue that they should be dealt with by Parliament rather than the courts because their actions were protected by parliamentary privilege.

Privilege traditionally guarantees MPs and peers immunity from slander laws for statements in parliamentary debates and also relates to access to parliamentary buildings.

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