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. However, in recent years, many areas of law have been removed from the scope of legal aid due to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Vulnerable people have since been left to struggle with complex legal problems alone.
You can find out more about who is financially eligible for legal aid and in what area of law from the Government website.
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 civil proceedings
The scope of civil proceedings that are eligible for legal aid has been dramatically affected by recent changes in the legislation.
Amongst the cases to be excluded from legal aid provision are family cases (except those involving domestic violence, child protection issues, child abduction or enforcement of international agreements, representation for a child, family mediation and forced marriage), immigration cases (except asylum cases and appeals, detention and bail cases, applications for leave to remain involving domestic violence or Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, proceedings before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and certain judicial review cases) education cases which do not involve special educational needs, debt matters (except certain cases involving the forced sale of your house or bankruptcy), welfare benefits cases (unless they reach the Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court) and many cases involving employment and homelessness (except those involving the threat of eviction, getting re-homed by the council, serious disrepair of a rental property and certain court orders).
Whether your issue is one for which legal aid is available is not necessarily a straightforward question and you should ask a solicitor specialising in the relevant area of law about it. You can start by contacting the Law Society and using their “Find A Solicitor” tool.
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.
What is the problem?
In recent years the Government has repeatedly sought to reduce spending on legal aid and to restrict its scope.
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.
Legal aid lawyers are not the ‘fat cats’ often described in the press. The average salary of a legal aid lawyer in 2013 was £25,000, less than nurses and teachers.