A family of millionaire travellers jailed for forcing vulnerable men to work for a pittance have been given nearly £500,000 in legal aid, it has emerged.

The Gloucestershire-based Connors family lived the high life at the expense of homeless drug addicts and alcoholics.

William Connors, 52, wife Mary, 48, their sons, John, 29, and James, 20, and son-in-law Miles Connors, 24, were jailed in December last year after being convicted of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour.

The profits funded a luxury cruise around the Caribbean and exotic holidays to Tenerife and Cancun in Mexico.
As well as holidays, they drove around in top-of-the-range cars, including a silver A-Class Mercedes saloon, a Rolls-Royce, a red Mini convertible, a Toyota Hilux pick-up, a Ford Ranger and a Mercedes van, and had built up a mounting property portfolio potentially now worth millions of pounds.

Several houses - including one with a hot tub and accompanying flat screen television - were registered in the names of other relatives.

The family bought two caravan parks in Gloucestershire for £545,000 more than a decade ago and had more than £500,000 in bank accounts seized by the police.

And despite their apparent wealth, the Connors were still able to claim legal aid.

The Legal Services Commission, the quango that oversees legal aid, paid a total of £461,363.68 for lawyers to defend the family during proceedings at Bristol Crown Court.

The large bill was run up during lengthy legal proceedings, which included a three-month trial.

Each of the Connors was defended by a QC, a senior barrister, who was assisted by junior counsel.

The startling figures were revealed following a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association.

A Legal Services Commission spokesman said: "We manage costs carefully and legal aid rates are considerably less than those paid to lawyers in privately funded cases.

"Trials can cost a lot of money if they last many weeks, are very complex and have thousands of pages of evidence.

"The law says that anyone facing a Crown Court trial for a serious criminal offence can apply for legal aid to ensure they have a lawyer, but funding is subject to a means test which could require them to pay towards their defence."

The Legal Services Commission could claw back the money if it is found the Connors have assets of over £30,000.

Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, criticised the availability of legal aid to the wealthy.

"Handing wealthy criminals huge sums of taxpayers' money is yet another example of why our legal aid system is in dire need of reform," he said.

"Legal aid is important in ensuring access to justice but it must also be sustainable to taxpayers.

"It's incredible that this gang were able to claim so much in the first place, but now that they have been found guilty, taxpayers have every right to expect their money to be reclaimed at the very least."

The Connors's enterprise came to an end when police raided sites in Staverton in Gloucestershire, Enderby in Leicestershire and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in March 2011 following a lengthy surveillance operation.

In December William Connors was jailed for six-and-a-half years and his wife Mary received a sentence of two years and three months.

John Connors was jailed for four years and his brother James got three years' detention in a young offender institution.

Son-in-law Miles Connors received a three-year prison sentence.

This week Appeal Court judges reserved judgment on an application to increase the "unduly lenient" sentences passed on the family.

A hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act is expected to take place later this year when prosecutors will seek to seize the Connors's assets.