Legal aid allows people who could not otherwise afford legal counsel the ability to pay for legal advice or proceedings. This is done through payments from public funds. Legal aid is administered by the Legal Services Commission and is available for most criminal cases, with the exception of libel. Recent court cases have ruled that even this is a breach of the right to a free trial, but it is still unclear as to whether the ruling will affect libel trials.
In April of 2000, Legal Aid was replaced by Community Legal Service Funding, which is also sometimes called Public Funding. Community Legal Service Funding may be granted in Children Act cases. This includes contract, residential and parental responsibility proceedings.
There are differing levels of held in civil matters. These include legal help which covers initial advice and assistance with legal problems, help in court including assistance where full representation is not required, and approved family help, including the services covered by Legal Help as well as issuing family proceedings. It also provides for representation where necessary to obtain disclosure or to obtain a consent order following agreement of matters in dispute.
Legal aid also covers legal representation, including legal representation for parties in proceedings. It also provides support funding which the partial funding of cases which would otherwise be funded privately, under a conditional fee agreement. Legal aid is available in two forms: Investigative Help and Full Representation.
Legal aid is only provided to individuals. Applicants who are in receipt of income support or income based job seeker's allowance and eligible for legal aid. Parties must qualify financially and meet the merits criteria for their type of case. Support funding is generally only available where the reasonable costs of investigation or litigation are exceptionally high. For legal help and help at court you must be able to show that your capital and your income are within the current financial limits.
Legal aid and help at court can be used for most legal problems. THis includes divorce and maintenance or debt and immigration matters. For family cases, legal aid covers most proceedings, short of full representation in contested proceedings. There are some exceptions, however, including Coroner's Court and most tribunals, except the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Mental Health Review Tribunal.
Legal help is not available outside of England and Wales, except where a case is referred by the court to the European Court. Support funding only provides partial funding in personal injury cases. Most cases that arise out of the carrying on of a business are not eligible. Cases involving disputes about a partnership, company or trust, boundary disputes or libel and slander cases are also not eligible for legal aid funding.
Parties interested in legal aid should contact a solicitor or legal advisor who holds a contract with the Legal Services Commission. The solicitor will need to know all about the party's finances. The LSC can also help in finding a solicitor, who may also be able to help prepare the application for funding.
It is also possible to apply for legal aid for appeal cases in which the initial case was not funded by legal aid. If the initial proceedings were funded by legal aid, the party will simply have the funding certificate amended.
If a party's income or capital increases during the period when the funding is in force, the Legal Services Commission must be notified and their means will be re-assessed. This also applies if your income decreases.
A Legal Aid certificate may be challenged by either party on grounds of merit (the case should not benefit from public money) or means (a party is not financially eligible).