A Guide to Legal Aid

A Guide to Legal Aid

You may have heard about legal aid before, but what is it, and who is eligible? 

Legal aid can help cover the expenses of legal services, family mediation, and court or tribunal representation. Basically, Legal aid is support for those who can’t afford to pay a solicitor or barrister for legal advice or court representation. 

Legal aid, however, is not just about financing court trials, legal advice and support will be used to advise people of their rights and responsibilities, when it comes to Northern Ireland Law.

Am I eligible for Legal Aid?

There are a few criteria that you will need to meet, before you can be considered for legal aid. 

  • Your case is eligible for legal aid
  • You cannot afford to pay for legal cost, which you will need to prove 
  • The problem is serious

You could for example get legal aid if:

  • 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
  • You’re adding legal arguments or bringing a case under the Human Rights Act 
  • You or your family are at risk of abuse or serious harm, for example domestic violence or forced marriage

Applying for legal aid

All applications for legal aid should be made by a solicitor. A solicitor can advise you if you would qualify for legal aid when they know the circumstances in your case. If you don’t have a solicitor, check the Law Society’s list of solicitors.

Payment of legal aid

Legal aid is paid through three different schemes:

  • Advice and assistance
  • Civil legal aid
  • Criminal legal aid
  1. Advice and assistance

Advice and assistance helps to pay for advice from a solicitor on any point of Northern Ireland law, for example trying to settle a dispute without going to court. It may also cover their solicitor representing them in court – this is “assistance by way of representation”.

Advice and assistance covers different matters, so long as they are matters of Northern Ireland law and you qualify financially. This could include advice on:

  • Divorce
  • Disputes over children
  • Employment matters
  • Welfare issues such as housing

Your solicitor will decide if you meet the financial eligibility limits under the advice and assistance scheme.

  1. Civil legal aid

Civil legal aid helps citizens seek legal advice and assistance in civil cases. Civil legal aid can provide a solicitor with funding to bring your case before the court. It includes preparatory work and hearing, including support for barristers, consultants (most cases start with advice and assistance and, if necessary, the next step may be civil legal aid).

You might get civil legal aid in:

  • Divorce and other matters affecting family and children
  • Actions for compensation for injuries resulting from an accident or medical negligence

The Legal Services Agency grants civil legal aid. They use a financial eligibility test. You might need to pay something for the legal services you get.

  1. Criminal legal aid

Criminal legal aid can include coverage while someone is under investigation by police or is facing criminal charges. A person being investigated about criminal charges by police is entitled to free legal aid and advice from police stations. This scheme is not means tested. You don’t need to pay anything for these legal services.

Getting Criminal Legal Aid

The granting of criminal legal aid by the court depends on:

  • A means test, the defendant doesn’t have enough income to pay for their defence
  • A merits test, it’s in the interests of justice the defendant gets legal aid

Before granting legal aid to the defendant, the court considers if: 

  • A loss of livelihood is likely if found guilty
  • An important question of law is involved
  • The defendant understands the proceedings
  • Imprisonment is likely if the defendant is found guilty
  • The defendant has an earlier suspended sentence which might be activated if they’re found guilty of the present charge
  • Cross-examination of expert witnesses is needed

If you cannot get legal aid, you may be able to get free advice from Citizens Advice. Contact us today at McPartland & Sons Solicitors if you have any questions surrounding legal aid and how we can help.