An overview of legal aid ?
Legal aid is essentially the Government funded resource to enable access to justice in civil and criminal law cases where otherwise, due to financial circumstances, the recipient would not have that access.
The Legal Aid system is now run by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) which awards franchises to firms of solicitors who apply for this status and meet the LSC’s quality standards which are monitored. Consequently, if a law firm does not have a franchise, which should be clear on all marketing materials such as website, it cannot provide legal aid advice.
The overall legal aid budget is currently in the order of £2 billion per year but this is subject to current plans for some very significant reductions which are being significantly opposed.
The legal aid system has been in place for just over 60 years.
Typical cases where legal aid may be available
Legal aid is available for most types of civil and criminal cases, subject to a financial eligibility and legal merits assessment. It is only available for legal matters where without it, there could be a miscarriage of justice and a pressing legal need. Consequently, it is not available for legal work such as conveyancing or making a will.
Some examples of typical uses of legal aid are :-
- housing law cases such as defending an application for eviction
- consumer law cases such as issues with sale of goods or supply of services
- Representation at court
- Divorce and family law, including issues such as domestic violence and child custody
- Negligence claims such as personal injury generally or medical or professional negligence
- Some aspects of employment law although not full employment tribunal representation
- Criminal proceedings including police station representation and at court
- Human Rights issues
The means and merits test
Legal aid is not free and the traditional description of it is as a loan not a gift. In other words, if you obtain legal aid and win your case, and your legal costs are not fully met by the losing party, you will need to possibly repay some or all of the damages you receive back to the legal aid board. In some circumstances where you are not claiming damages, you will be liable to repay the LSC at some stage in the future when you have the means to do so.
Financial means (the eligibility test)
Under the current rules, you will be eligible to legal aid if you are receiving :-
- income support
- income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- guarantee credit part of Pension Credit.
If you have an income, it will depend firstly on your overall income, including your partners, being less than the current level of £2,657.00 gross per month. If your combined income is over that level, you are not eligible for legal aid. If your income is less than this figure but your disposable income is more than £733.00 per month, again you are ineligible. The best and easiest way to calculate this is by using the tool on the Ministry of Justice website, www.justice.gov.uk.
In addition, you may be ineligible because you have too much capital as well as income. If you have more than £8,000.00 whether as cash, valuable items or equity in your home you will not qualify. As mentioned above, if you do qualify for legal aid and have to repay your legal costs and own your own house, this can result in the LSC obtaining what is known as a statutory charge over your home until you repay what you owe.
As this article is a brief overview, we do not deal with all of the above in major detail. We will post articles on various aspects in more detail, but you will always need to check the position with a legal aid firm. The figures stated above are current at the time of this note but will inevitably change so will also need to be rechecked for current accuracy.