One of the most popular questions we get asked is how a person can get help funding their case.
A lot of people still believe Legal Aid exists for all, but unfortunately due to government cuts, since 2013 legal aid is now only available to victims of domestic violence who pass further tests – a merits test (financial assessment against income and capital) and a means test (whether the matter is important enough for public funding).
There are therefore a number of hurdles to pass before obtaining legal aid.
1. You have to prove you are a victim of domestic violence.
This isn’t always easy if you have not felt strong enough to seek help however you can not get legal aid without the evidence required by the legal aid agency.
They have very stringent rules in this regard which must be evidenced which could be in the form of a letter from your doctor or a domestic violence support organisation or a letter from social services confirming your child is at risk of harm. If there has been a police conviction this evidence may also suffice if the offence was against you. However, if the police did not prosecute, or the proceedings are ongoing, this may not be enough evidence.
2. You must pass the means test on income.
You will need to provide your solicitor with all your relevant financial documentation to assess whether you are eligible on income grounds. The rules are quite complex and a lot of evidence will be required before your solicitor can fully assess you. Your solicitor can provide you with a list of documentation required before the first meeting and at the meeting give you an immediate indication if you may be eligible. If you are on certain benefits, you may pass the income test automatically and again your solicitor can advise in this regard.
There are different brackets of “disposable income” which is your income after taking into account certain deductions allowable by the legal aid agency. If you fall in the first bracket, then you are eligible without contributions. If you fall within the second bracket, you will be asked to make a monthly contribution to the legal aid agency towards your costs for the lifetime of your case unless your means change and you are reassessed. If you fall in the third bracket, you will not be eligible for legal aid.
3. You must pass the means test on capital.
This means the amount of money you have in savings, investments or assets, including the equity in your house. There is a complex formula used to work out your capital as certain deductions can be made as allowed by the legal aid agency.
Again you may have to make a contribution if capital is over a certain limit (£3000). This contribution will be in the form of a lump sum. Public funding is not available for persons with a disposable capital of over £8000.
4. You must pass the merits test.
This means that your case must be strong enough – there must be enough “merit” for the government to provide you with funding for your case. A suitably experienced solicitor can assess your circumstances. It may be that your solicitor advises that certain action must be taken before the legal aid agency will fund a court case, such as a letter before action.
What if social services are involved?
If social services become involved with your family and send you an invitation to a “PLO” meeting or instigate care proceedings, public funding will automatically be available to you on a non-means, non-merits tested basis.
What if my matter is urgent for the protection of me and or my children?
If you need to go to court urgently to protect you or your children and apply for an occupation order or non-molestation order, you can automatically qualify for legal aid for this action. However, depending on your income and capital, you may have to make substantial monthly contributions and/or a lump sum contribution to the costs of your case.
The rules seem so complex! Is it worth the hassle?
Fortunately, a well informed and experienced solicitor can streamline this process for you and take the pressure off you. All you need to do is provide certain documentation such as bank statements, wage slips and benefit letters.
At the initial meeting, your solicitor will be able to assess all your circumstances fully and advise if you are eligible for legal aid. This process can take up to an hour. Depending on the answer, your solicitor can then advise on a suitable way forwards.
If legal aid is available subject to the case and assessment, this may not cost you at all. However, if you do have to make payments this will be less than paying your solicitor privately as legal.
What happens if I cannot get legal aid?
We understand that family matters are important but that this needs to be balanced with your realistic financial situation. We can, therefore, tailor packages to you with transparent cost estimates.