Since the coalition Government came into power, there has been a great deal of talk about budget cuts. The plans to cut legal aid, which had a budget of £2.1billion, will have a wide-ranging impact on members of the public. There are now many areas of law that are no longer covered by legal aid such as family law (unless the issue concerns child welfare), medical negligence, non-asylum immigration cases and many others.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill outlines the new rules about who is entitled to legal aid and for what type of legal issue.
As before, in order to qualify for legal aid, you need to meet certain conditions. These include a financial means test and a 'merits' test, which evaluates the chance of your case's success. You should consult a solicitor who can check whether you are eligible.
But what if you have already spoken to a solicitor and have been told that you do not qualify for legal aid? There are still a variety of other options that you can consider in order to get help.
Law centres are not-for-profit legal practices providing free legal advice to disadvantaged people. There are 56 law centres in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and solicitors and barristers who specialise in areas of civil law such as employment, housing, discrimination, welfare benefits, education and immigration staff these centres. Law centres provide an independent legal advice and representation service. If you would like to find your local law centre, you should visit the Law Centres Federation website at:
Conditional fee agreements
Conditional fee agreements are used across most legal sectors, although most commonly for personal injury claims. A conditional fee agreement is a written agreement whereby legal fees and expenses only become payable in certain circumstances. You may wish to consider entering into a type of conditional fee agreement called a "no win, no fee" agreement, which effectively provides that legal fees only become payable if your case is won.
You should be aware that a 'success fee' will usually be charged by the solicitor in addition to their standard fees if the case is won; however, in most cases the opponent should pay your costs if you do win, and this would normally include any success fee or disbursements (out-of-pocket expenses).
It is important to note that, if you do enter into a conditional fee agreement, whilst you are generally not liable to pay your own legal costs if you lose, it is likely that you will still have to pay your opponent's costs.
Legal expenses insurance
As a result of the inherent risks associated with conditional fee agreements, it is prudent to consider using them in conjunction with some form of legal expenses insurance. You should check whether you are already covered for certain legal expenses by an existing insurance policy (e.g. home contents insurance) - this is known as 'before the event' insurance.
Alternatively, it may be possible to take out 'after the event' insurance once legal proceedings have been commenced or contemplated, in order to cover losses which may be incurred as a result of the dispute. Although legal expenses insurance can be taken out independently of a conditional fee agreement, if you use them in conjunction with one another the insurance will cover your solicitor's disbursements and the other party's legal costs if the case is lost. You may also be able to recover the cost of the insurance premium if the case is won.
It may be worth consulting your, or your partner's, trade union to see if they can offer some legal assistance.
'Pro Bono' legal services
Some solicitors or legal advisers offer some services free of charge. This is called 'Pro Bono' work and means 'for the public good'. You may also wish to consider seeking advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, which helps people resolve their legal problems by providing free, independent and confidential advice.
Many organisations, including Sound Off for Justice and Liberty, believe that the legal aid cuts will hit the most vulnerable people hardest and will force many people who are most in need of legal support to resort to DIY justice.
Find out why Liberty is fighting the legal aid cuts (Liberty)
Read more about legal aid (FindLaw)
Find local specialist solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)