Millions more people could qualify for legal aid as the scheme is expanded – here's what's changing
Six million more people in England and Wales are expected to qualify for free legal aid under a shake-up to the eligibility criteria announced by the Government. However, the changes aren't in force yet and you will still need to apply for the support with no guarantee of being successful. Here's what's happening.
The Government has published a response to a consultation outlining how the eligibility criteria to access legal aid will be expanded. The changes, which we outline below, are expected to come into force over the next two years.
Below we explain:
Legal aid can help those who are struggling to meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal.
It's a Government-funded scheme that's designed to cover the cost of legal advice, representation in court, gathering evidence and court fees. It may also pay the other party's costs if you lose. It's not guaranteed to cover all your costs and you may still have to pay some of the costs upfront.
There are two types of legal aid: one for criminal cases, when a person has been charged with a crime; and one for civil cases, which handle disputes between individuals or businesses.
To qualify for legal aid, you'll usually need to show that the problem is "serious". Examples of scenarios legal aid can typically be used for include:
- If you or your family are at risk of abuse or serious harm, for example domestic violence or forced marriage.
- You're at risk of homelessness or losing your home.
- You've been accused of a crime, face prison or detention.
- You're being discriminated against.
- You need family mediation, for example to help agree on how to split money and property if you and your partner separate.
- You're adding legal arguments or bringing a case under the Human Rights Act.
You may need to prove you cannot afford to pay for legal costs.
- Most applications for legal aid in civil cases are means-tested. The current income limit is £31,884. This means that if you're 18 or over, you usually have to provide evidence of your income and savings and what benefits you receive. If you're under 18, under current rules, you need to provide evidence of your parent or guardian's income. Means-testing is waived, however, if the legal aid is for cases involving mental health tribunals, child abduction or children in care.
- All legal aid for those aged 18 and over in criminal cases is means-tested. The current income limit for cases involving the Crown Court (a court dealing with the most serious criminal cases) is £37,500. The income limit for cases involving a Magistrates Court (a court dealing with criminal and civil cases) is £22,325.
If, however, you're in receipt of certain benefits and pass an IOJ test, you will qualify for free legal aid. These benefits include: income-based employment and support allowance, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income support, state pension guarantee credit, and universal credit. You can also qualify for free legal aid if you're under 18 and pass the IOJ test.
Under new Government rules, some of this eligibility criteria to apply for legal aid is being expanded
Under the changes, you'll be able to apply for legal aid:
- To defend yourself in a Crown Court no matter how much you earn. This is because the current upper income threshold of £37,500 is to be removed, meaning there will be no means-testing for legal aid in Crown Courts, although those on higher incomes may be asked to contribute to their defence costs. We've asked the Government for more information on this and we will update this story when we know more.
- To defend yourself in a Magistrates Court if you earn £34,950 or less. This is because the maximum income threshold is increasing from £22,325 to £34,950.
- To defend yourself in civil cases if you earn £34,950 or less. This is because the maximum income threshold is increasing from £31,884 to £34,950.
- If you're aged under 18. Here, you'll be eligible for free legal support without means-testing. In civil courts, legal aid is currently means-tested for under 18s.
- If your child is on life support. Parents who are challenging medical decisions to withdraw their child's life support will also now qualify for legal aid regardless of income.
- If you're a domestic abuse victim, your partner's assets will no longer contribute towards your earnings for legal aid applications. This is because the changes will remove means-testing on joint assets (like a shared home) for domestic abuse victims who are seeking certain protective court orders.
Legal aid services can only be provided by organisations that have a contract with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), which is a Government-led organisation. This includes solicitors' firms, law centres and other organisations, such as the Citizens Advice charity.
It's important to note that, even if you qualify for legal aid, the LAA can take a portion of any money or property you win in your case to cover your legal costs (this is known as the "statutory charge").
- If your case is civil: you can usually check your eligibility for legal aid online and apply via Gov.uk. Alternatively, you can ask a solicitor who has expertise or experience in your case and who offers legal aid services to apply for you. You can find a solicitor via Gov.uk.
If your case is about debt, discrimination, or involves special educational needs, you need to contact the Civil Legal Advice helpline as advice for these types of cases is only available through a mandatory gateway service.
- If your case is criminal: you should ask your solicitor or barrister if you can get legal aid. You can find a legal aid criminal solicitor on Gov.uk.
If you aren't eligible for legal aid or can't find someone to take on your case, there are still ways you can get free legal advice – though be aware that services can be stretched as demand for them is likely to be high:
- You might be able to get free advice from a solicitor or trainee legal advisor at a law centre. Law centres can help with problems such as benefits, discrimination, community care, employment, family matters, housing and homelessness, and immigration and asylum. You can find your nearest law centre on the Law Centres Network website.
- You may be able to get free legal advice through a charity. Charities such as Support Through Court (which MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis is a patron of) offer free support to people who are facing court proceedings without legal representation and can provide details of other free legal advice services. Charity Advocate is another service that helps you to find barristers who are offering free legal assistance for those going through court proceedings.
- You might get help through the Government-funded "exceptional case funding" scheme. If you can't get legal aid, there's a small chance you might be able to get help through what's known as "exceptional case funding", depending on your circumstances. You can ask your nearest Citizens Advice if it can help you apply.