The Legal Aid Agency provides both civil and criminal legal aid and gives advice to people that need help dealing with their legal problems. The agency is responsible for ensuring that legal aid services from both solicitors and barristers are made readily available to the general public. They also fund the Civil Legal Aid Service and publish statistical information regarding legal aid, which informs further decision making.
Am I entitled to Legal Aid?
In terms of legal aid, you may be eligible for funding if you need to obtain legal advice and/or require legal representation in a court of law or at a tribunal and you cannot afford to pay any legal costs otherwise. To determine eligibility for legal aid, there are two main requirements that must be satisfied. The first is whether your individual case actually falls within a specific category in which legal aid is available, as it is not in all situations, and secondly whether you are financially eligible; again this can be complicated and even if you are not in receipt of any welfare benefit you may still be eligible and conversely if you are on certain welfare benefits it does not necessarily make you automatically eligible for legal aid. If both of these requirements are satisfied, then an application for legal aid will be made to the Legal Aid Agency who usually decides within 4-6 weeks. If they then accept the application then a legal aid certificate is issued with a limit attached as to how much work a legal representative can undertake. If that limit is reached then the legal representatives that you have employed will apply to extend the limit but it is not automatically given that the Legal Aid Agency will do so and if it does then your circumstances and financial situation should not have changed in any way, as any change could affect your eligibility.
The cases that the Legal Aid Agency deem as eligible for legal aid range from criminal cases and/or those that face prison or detention elsewhere, as well as family and civil matters. Legal aid can be used for family law matters and can be granted for both family mediation in relation to both children and financial matters if required, between yourself and your ex-partner. This extends to if there is a further requirement to attend court after mediation for divorce and court orders etc. It can also be obtained in cases of human rights, inquests, child or vulnerable adult abuse, clinical negligence whereby a child has been injured during childbirth, actions taken against the police and other public authorities, as well as asylum cases and judicial reviews. Just because your case may fall within one of the categories that is deemed eligible for legal aid, it does not necessarily mean that all of the costs for your case will be covered by legal aid. The Legal Help scheme may provide initial advice and assistance but only cases that meet a Merits Criteria will be granted an actual legal aid certificate. The merits criteria vary depending upon the actual case and the category in which it falls but generally includes looking at whether the case is likely to win, whether the potential outcome of the case is likely to be reasonable considering the costs of bringing the case to court and whether the case has specific wider public interest.
What is a legal aid means test?
In terms of actual financial eligibility for legal aid assistance, a means test or financial test must be satisfied. This can be quite complicated but in broad terms you must not have more than £2657 in gross income per month (however this levels varies if you have more children), you must not have more than £733 of disposable income per month and you must not have more than £8000 in capital (these figures were accurate when this document was published. You may wish to check the figures quoted as these figures are likely to change), in order to be eligible. The Legal Aid Agency take into consideration any income or capital belonging to both yourself and your current partner. If you or your partner are in receipt of either Income Support, Income Based Jobseekers Allowance, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance, Guarantee Credit or Universal credit and your savings are under the £8000 threshold, you will pass the income assessment part of the legal aid means test. Please note this on it’s own may not qualify you for legal aid. If you are not in receipt of one of these qualifying benefits, then your gross income including money received from earnings, rent from a lodger, any other regular payments etc. including tax and national insurance is assessed. There are also some welfare benefits that are classed as income such as Carers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Benefit, Tax Credits, Contribution Based Jobseekers Allowance, Incapacity Benefit and Direct Payments and therefore must be declared as income.
In order to calculate your disposable income, the final figure of your gross income is taken into account and the essential deductions are taken from this figure. These deductions include any tax and national insurance that you pay, your rent or mortgage costs, childcare expenses if you are either in employment or full-time education, an employment allowance of £45 if you are an employee and an amount of £181.91 if you have a dependent partner living with you. For each dependent child in your care then an amount of £291.49 is also deducted, this includes those aged 19 years and under if they are in full time education. Once these deductions have been made from the figure obtained for your gross income, if you are left with an amount of between £315 and £733 per month, then you are likely to have to make a small contribution to your legal aid. If your monthly income is less than £315 then you will not have to make any contribution and any reasonable costs of your legal representation should be covered by legal aid.
Once the income test shown above has been satisfied, a capital test must also be undertaken. This includes all capital from savings, investments, valuable items, cars worth over £15,000 and in cases where you own your own property, then any equity over £100,000 is also included. In order to qualify for legal aid, your assessed capital must come to under £8,000 however, if you have over £3,000 in capital but under the £8,000 limit, then you may still have to pay a contribution towards your legal aid. For those over 60 years of age and in receipt of an income of less than £315 per month, then the capital limit is raised to a maximum of £108,000 in circumstances where there is no monthly income or you are in receipt of Income Support, Income Based Jobseekers Allowance, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance, Guarantee Credit or Universal Credit.