If you have a legal problem and you are not able to pay for a lawyer yourself, you may be entitled to legal aid (sometimes referred to as ‘public funding’).
There are different types of legal aid available, depending upon what sort of legal problem you have. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, contains many changes to the legal aid system which will come into force in April 2013. At the moment Legal aid is administered by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), but from next April the LSC will be replaced by the Director of Legal Aid Casework, a civil servant answerable to the Lord Chancellor. Many areas of law will be removed from the scope of legal aid, meaning vulnerable people will be left to struggle with complex legal problems alone. Amongst the cases to be excluded from legal aid provision are many family cases, immigration cases which do not involve detention or claims based on domestic violence, education cases which do not involve special educational needs, debt matters, welfare benefits cases (unless they reach the higher courts) and many cases involving employment and homelessness.
The Government plans to cut £350 million from the legal aid budget.
Why is legal aid important?
If a person cannot afford legal representation, this can undermine their right to a fair trial, a right which is protected under Article 6 of the Human Rights Act. The right of access to a court must be meaningful and practical, not theoretical. The issue of legal aid provision is a continuous source of conflict between the Government and those who represent some of the most marginalised groups in society.
Legal aid in criminal proceedings
Everyone arrested and taken to a police station is entitled to free legal advice, whatever their means. After being charged or issued with a summons, a person’s eligibility for further legal assistance becomes means tested. This will cover the work that a solicitor will need to do to prepare the case and representation at the Magistrates Court and the Crown Court.
It must also be established that it is in the interests of justice for a person to be granted legal aid. If a person is found guilty, they may be required to repay their legal costs. The rules are constantly changing and it is important to take specialist advice from a solicitor who specialises in the criminal law.
Legal aid in civil proceedings
Legal aid is available for a number of types of civil proceedings. To qualify for civil legal aid you need to be on a very low income or certain welfare benefits. You can find out more about who is financially eligible for legal aid from the Legal Services Commission.
Even if you are financially eligible for legal aid you may not get it if the LSC is not satisfied that your case has sufficient merit. A solicitor who specialises in legal aid work will be able to advise you whether it is worth applying for legal aid and to assist you to make an application.
What is the problem?
In recent years the Government has repeatedly sought to reduce spending on legal aid and to restrict its scope.
There is a constant battle between those tasked with reining in expenditure and lawyers facing ever increasing demand for legal assistance from those who desperately need it, particularly in times of economic hardship. It is estimated that over 2 million people each year receive legal aid of some sort.
Legal aid “deserts” have emerged across the country in key areas of law, such as immigration and mental health, as firms can no longer afford to offer these services. Many firms have given up their criminal legal aid practices raising serious concerns about increased risks of miscarriages of justice.
The average salary of a legal aid lawyer in 2009 was £25,000, less than a prison officer or a sewage plant worker. This contrasts sharply with the mythical legal aid ‘fat cats’ often described in the press.