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Blacks Legal • Jan 12, 2022

Nobody should be denied access to justice simply because they cannot afford to pay legal fees. In fact, equal access to legal services is a key principle of democracy and is central to the Rule of Law.

In order to ensure that everyone could get legal advice and representation, regardless of their financial position, the legal aid system was set up. As a result, many people who once wouldn’t have been able to afford access to justice can now get the legal services they need.

If you’ve got a legal issue but are worried about the cost of raising it, legal aid might be able to help you get access to the justice you deserve. This guide from Blacks Legal will explain everything you need to know about legal aid, so you can make an informed decision about whether it’s a viable option to help you seek justice.

What is legal aid?

Put simply, legal aid is the provision of financial assistance to people who have a serious legal issue but are unable to afford the cost of legal advice and representation themselves. It can help them pay some or all of their legal expenses.

If certain eligibility criteria are met, legal aid can help individuals gain access to:

●     Advice on their rights or a specific legal issue

●     Assistance with negotiations and paperwork

●     A legal representative to speak on their behalf or represent them in court

●     Legal advice upon being arrested or taken into custody

Legal aid is crucial in ensuring all citizens have equal access to justice - it maintains the principle of equality in the eyes of the law and ensures that the rights to legal services and to a fair trial are fulfilled.

Is my case suitable for legal aid?

Many types of civil legal issues are suitable for legal aid. A civil case involves a dispute with a person, company, a government department or agency, or any other organisation. You may be able to get legal aid for legal issues such as:

●     Losing your home

●     Protecting yourself and/or your children from abuse or harassment (for example, domestic violence or forced marriage)

●     Advice for people in abusive relationships

●     Advice or representation for those at risk of having their children taken into care

●     Family mediation (for example, when a couple is separating/divorcing)

●     Discrimination (especially when the discrimination is based on protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 - e.g. race, sex, religion, sexuality, age, pregnancy/maternity)

●     Challenging government decisions involving the claimant

●     Needing representation at a mental health tribunal or inquest

●     Appealing a decision made by the social security tribunal about the claimant’s benefits

What are the eligibility criteria?

Most legal aid cases will require the applicant to be ‘financially eligible’. This is determined by assessing a person’s disposable income (money left over after paying living expenses) and disposable capital (money, investments or property that could be used or sold to pay for legal services). Where relevant and appropriate, the applicant’s partner’s financial situation might also be taken into account.

You will not be considered financially eligible if your gross monthly income was more than £2,530 in the last month. This gross income limit is higher for families with more than four dependent children - £211 is added for the 5th child and each subsequent child - and those who have more than £8,000 of disposable capital. In most cases, these limits are disregarded when someone is applying for an order to protect themselves or their children from harm.

An applicant’s financial situation is not taken into account for cases involving:

●     Mental health tribunals

●     Children in care

●     Child abduction

You’ll automatically get legal aid for legal representation in court if you’re under 16, under 18 and in full-time education, or on certain benefits. If you live in England or Wales and are raising a civil legal issue, you can check your eligibility for legal aid here

Can my entitlement change after I start receiving legal aid?

If your financial situation changes - for example, if your salary increases or decreases, or you come into some money from selling assets - then another assessment may be carried out and the amount you must pay towards your legal costs can change.

Your legal aid can also be stopped if:

●     You fail to provide information that your legal adviser needs or has asked for

●     Your financial circumstances change so that you are no longer financially eligible

●     You withhold information about your financial situation

●     You fail to keep up with any contributions you agreed to pay towards your legal costs

Your legal aid can be stopped in two ways. It can be discharged, which means your funding will stop from the point you receive a notice informing you it is stopping. You may have to repay some or all of the money already spent on your case.

Alternatively, your legal aid can be ‘revoked’. This usually occurs if it becomes clear that you were wrongly granted legal aid - for example because you provided false information about your finances. In this case, you may have to repay all the money spent on your case.

How to access legal aid

Civil cases

If you’re raising a civil legal issue, your legal adviser or family mediator will apply for legal aid on your behalf. If the application is successful, the government will pay the legal aid directly to the legal professional you’ve chosen.

It might be worth doing a little research before choosing your legal representative, as not all solicitor firms or other legal professionals will be willing to take on legal aid cases. You always want to make sure that you’ve found the right legal representative for you and your case - there’s usually a lot at stake, after all.

Criminal cases

If you are arrested and detained at a police station, you have the right to free legal advice. You must be informed of this right after your arrest and before you’re questioned. If you initially turn down the offer of legal counsel, you can change your mind at a later stage.

You may be offered legal advice over the phone (instead of a duty solicitor) if you’re suspected of having committed a less serious offence.

There are a few different options when it comes to legal advice after being arrested, including:

●     Being represented by the police station’s ‘duty solicitor’ - they’re available round the clock and are independent of the police

●     Asking the police to contact the Defence Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC), who will then assign a legal representative to you

●     Requesting that the police contact a solicitor of your choice

If you’re charged and/or go to court, the legal representative will check whether you qualify for legal aid. You can then choose to get legal advice from the same solicitor that helped you upon arrest, speak to the court’s duty solicitor, or find your own criminal solicitor (so long as they’re willing to take on a legal aid case).

Emergency legal aid

You can also get emergency help if you need urgent legal representation in court - for example, to keep yourself and/or your children safe from domestic abuse.

Your legal adviser will apply for emergency legal aid to cover any immediate action, but you’ll still need to apply for legal aid in the usual way for ongoing, non-emergency legal assistance.

What kinds of documents will my legal adviser need?

The financial aspect of the legal aid application will require you to provide general admin information and documents that you already have or will be able to obtain easily.

You’ll need to give information about your income, savings and spending - including payslips and bank statements - as well as any benefits you receive, so make sure you have benefits statements available. You may also need to provide your National Insurance number.

You’ll also need to provide copies of any evidence that relates to your case, for example, court documents, marriage and birth certificates (for family cases), and any relevant letters.

Alternative sources of legal advice

If you cannot get legal aid but are still concerned about affording legal costs, there are other options available:

●     Free legal advice from the Law Centres Network, Citizens Advice, Advice Now, or other organisation

●     A conditional-fee (‘no win, no fee’) agreement

●     Legal expenses insurance to cover legal costs

●     Assistance from your trade union (or, potentially, your partner’s)

Find the Right Legal Professional for You at Blacks Legal

Are you looking for a reliable solicitor firm to help you get the justice you deserve? Look no further than Blacks Legal. We offer a range of legal services, from commercial property law and corporate law to wills and probate and employment issues.

No matter what your legal issue is, our experienced team of solicitors will gladly help you find the best solution for you. By choosing Blacks Legal, you can rest assured that you have a trustworthy legal expert fighting your corner every step of the way. Get in touch with us today for more information about how we can help you.

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