For those who cannot afford to pay for legal advice, legal aid is available. This support is only available to cover certain legal disputes, and you must meet the eligibility criteria in terms of your earning status. Legal aid differs according to the three legal domains of the UK: England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Legal Aid in England and Wales
Legal aid in England and Wales is available to cover legal advice, mediation services, and in some cases, representation in court by a solicitor or barrister. Those who need legal help may receive help writing letters and filling in paper work; for example, in housing disputes. You may also have someone speak for you in court; this is not the same as having someone represent you, but can be helpful. If you are experiencing a family dispute, you may receive help with mediation fees. Those who are facing criminal charges may be eligible for legal aid that covers solicitor or barrister representation.
Legal aid in England and Wales is not available for all types of dispute. It will cover all manners of legal cases, but only certain areas of civil law. Family disputes, income, benefits, and property law may be covered by legal aid. More often than not, those who are seeking personal injury, assistance with writing a will, representation at an employment tribunal, or assistance with a libel/slander case cannot receive legal aid.
Whether or not you receive legal aid will depend on your income, how many dependents (if any) you have to support, and what your monthly outgoings are. For those who cannot receive legal aid, there are other forms of free legal advice available.
Legal Aid in Scotland
Legal aid in Scotland is granted by the Scottish Legal Aid Board. In Scotland, those seeking assistance with civil cases will be covered for family disputes, injuries following an accident or medical negligence, housing matters, debt and welfare rights, and matters regarding immigration or asylum. As far as criminal cases are concerned, residents in Scotland will apply for legal aid via the solicitor they have chosen to represent their case.
In order to assess whether you are eligible for civil legal aid in Scotland, your solicitor will provide you with the relevant forms. It is important to bear in mind that civil legal aid in Scotland will only cover civil disputes that fall under Scottish law.
Legal Aid in Northern Ireland
Legal aid in Northern Ireland is provided by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission. As with other areas of the UK, the majority of civil cases are covered. Civil legal aid in Ireland is also very flexible, but will only be covered according to certain levels of disposable income. For example, those seeking legal aid in Northern Ireland for a family dispute may have their fees covered up to just under £4,000, but those who are seeking it for personal injury matters may be covered up to £10,000 disposable income. This disposable income will be assessed by the solicitor who is providing the legal aid services.
Legal Aid Governing Bodies
Solicitors who provide their services under the legal aid scheme are regulated by the Legal Aid Services Board (LASB). The LASB regulates issues regarding legal aid accessibility. For those who find that they are only just ineligible for legal aid, the LASB can act as a body that determines whether an exception can be made in their case. In addition to this, the LASB will regulate the services that are being provided by legal aid solicitors. This means that those who are unhappy with their solicitor's conduct can discuss the matter with the LASB, as well as the law society. In dispute cases, the LASB can provide guidance on how to resolve the matter with the solicitor yourself, before guiding you on escalating the matter if you are not satisfied with the response you have received.
Legal Aid Eligibility and Conditions
Legal aid is assessed differently in each of the three different legal districts. Criminal cases often have more flexibility than civil ones, whereas civil ones have strict limits on the disposable income that an individual may have in order to access funds. In the case of those who are under 18 and wishing to access legal aid, their parents income will be assessed. If it is found that their parents have enough disposable income to cover the cost of their legal fees, then they will be liable.
Being granted access to legal aid for a civil case does not mean that all of your costs will be covered. In both criminal and civil cases, you must remain with the solicitor you applied for legal aid under. If you are unhappy with your solicitor's conduct and would like to apply for legal aid under another one, you may only do so if the LASB holds that they have not acted fairly towards you, or that they have not met your needs.
Legal aid is not always a guarantee that you will receive representation in court. If you are facing criminal charges, you will at least receive representation from a solicitor. If your case is serious, you may also be entitled to representation from a barrister. Whether or not a barrister is instructed will depend on the solicitor leading your case. In civil cases, you may only receive advice rather than representation. With regards to family cases, you may be provided with a mediation service. Mediation services act as an alternative to court, and can be used to discuss the details of the dispute with the opposite party. In order to be represented, you must use a solicitor covered by the legal aid scheme.
Although legal aid has been restricted in recent years, it is still available for the most pressing of cases. While it may not cover all aspects of civil fees, it can act as a vital lifeline for those who are struggling to shoulder costs themselves.