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Help with legal costs

If you need help with legal costs you may be able to receive some help through legal aid. There are three different types of legal aid:-

  • legal advice and assistance (the green form scheme), covering advice before the case goes to court
  • assistance by way of representation (ABWOR), covering advice before a case and representation in court. It applies to civil cases in magistrates' courts, for example, proceedings in relation to children, and is available to patients before Mental Health Review Tribunals
  • civil legal aid, covering advice and representation in civil proceedings including court costs and professional fees.

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The green form scheme

Legal aid allows people with a low income to get free legal advice and assistance from a solicitor or other organisation. A solicitor must be a member of the Law Society of Northern Ireland to provide help under the green form scheme.

What sort of help does the scheme cover

The green form scheme covers help from a solicitor including general advice on any legal problems, writing letters, negotiating, getting a barrister’s opinion and preparing a written case for a tribunal.

The scheme will pay for being represented by a solicitor in court or at a tribunal. It will also cover some Mental Health Review Tribunals and in certain specific cases before the Prison Board of Visitors and Visiting Committees, although generally, representation will fall under the assistance by way of representation (ABWOR) scheme.

The scheme may cover the costs of mediation. Mediation is a process of negotiation where the parties are helped by a neutral mediator to find a solution acceptable to both of them.

Legal problems covered by the scheme

The green form scheme covers advice on general legal problems including advice on the following:-

  • maintenance or disputes over children and undefended divorce. It is only available for the person starting proceedings, not the respondent
  • conveyancing necessary to carry out a court order or following a divorce settlement or legal separation
  • contested adoptions
  • preparing for tribunals, for example, employment tribunals (for unfair dismissal) or unified appeal tribunals (for benefits appeals), but not representation at the tribunal itself
  • help with the legal costs of making a will
  • medical negligence cases or cases where personal injury arises from an assault or deliberate abuse.

For your case to qualify for the green form scheme, there are two criteria that must always be met:-

  • help will be provided only where it can be shown there is a benefit to you
  • help will be provided only if it is reasonable for the matter to be funded.

In addition to these criteria, there may be other criteria applied, depending on the nature of the case, for example, if the case is about possession of your home, legal help will be refused if the prospects of avoiding possession are poor.

How much work is covered by the scheme

The amount of help available under the green form scheme is limited. The maximum amount of help available is £500 for all areas of law, except for immigration cases where the maximum varies. The maximum amount includes expenses. The solicitor can apply for extra time to finish the work under the green form scheme. This is known as an extension.

What are the financial conditions for the scheme

Capital

If you have capital of over £3000, you will not be eligible for help under the green form scheme.

Income

If you are claiming income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or the guarantee credit of Pension Credit, you will be considered to have an income within the limits to qualify for the green form scheme.

If you are not receiving income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or the guarantee credit of Pension Credit, eligibility will depend on disposable income. So, if you are receiving any other benefits, whether or not you are eligible for help will depend on your income.

Disposable income is the amount of income you have after deductions have been made for national insurance, tax and dependants’ allowances. A deduction will be made from your weekly income for any dependent partner or children living in the your household. To qualify for the green form scheme, your disposable monthly income cannot be more than £621.

If you have a partner, your partner’s income and capital may also be taken into account, except where this is inappropriate, for example, where there is a conflict of interest between you and your partner.

For more information about the green form scheme, you can go to the Law Society's website, where there is a leaflet called A Guide to Legal Aid. The website address is www.nilad.org.

Extra costs you may have to pay

In some cases, your solicitor's costs may be taken from any money or property you are awarded in court, and you will receive what's left. This deduction is called the statutory charge. However, the charge need not be deducted if your solicitor believes this would cause you grave hardship or distress. The statutory charge may also not be deducted if the solicitor or organisation believes it would be too difficult to enforce the deduction.

If the statutory charge has to be paid, payment can be postponed if the charge relates to your home or the home of your dependants. The statutory charge can also be postponed where it is to be paid out of money which is to be used to buy a home for yourself or your dependants. Your solicitor will give you more information about the effects of the statutory charge before you decide to go ahead with your case.

A solicitor may need more than the two hours (three hours for divorce or separation cases) limit set under the green form scheme to finish the work, and in these cases, may be able to extend the time. Also, there is a financial limit to the work that the solicitor or organisation can do. If the work would cost more than this limit, the solicitor or organisation will need the permission of the Law Society, to extend the limit. The solicitor or organisation must not carry out further work unless the extension has been granted. If the extension is not agreed, you will have to pay the full amount for the work to be completed.

How to apply

If you qualify for the green form scheme, you will need to see a solicitor, or organisation with a contract to provide legal help under the green form scheme. The solicitor will ask you to fill in an application form at the start of the interview. The solicitor will then be able to decide whether you qualify.

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Assistance by way of representation

Assistance by way of representation covers the cost of a solicitor preparing your case and representing you in most civil cases in Magistrates' courts. These cases include separation, maintenance and paternity proceedings. It is also available to patients before Mental Health Review Tribunals and prisoners facing disciplinary charges before boards of visitors. You can apply through your solicitor who will fill in the Green Form and another form which will be sent to the Legal Aid Department. They decide whether your application satisfies the merits test. Except in the case of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, boards of visitors and PACE, the person applying for ABWOR must show that there are reasonable grounds for taking, defending or being a party to the proceedings to which the application relates. The Legal Aid Department has the power to grant or refuse ABWOR.

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The controlled legal representation scheme means that free representation can be given if you are:-

  • appearing before a Mental Health Review Tribunal. There are no financial eligibility limits; or
  • appearing before an Immigration Appeal Tribunal or immigration adjudicator. The same financial limits apply as for the green form scheme (see under heading The green form scheme).

There are specific criteria which must be met. These will depend on what sort of case it is.

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Publicly-funded legal representation provides publicly funded legal services for all the work leading up to and including representation by a solicitor or barrister in civil court proceedings.

The granting of publicly-funded legal representation generally depends on whether you have income and capital within specified limits (except in certain cases involving children). Even if you are granted publicly-funded legal representation, you might have to contribute towards the costs.

Being granted publicly-funded legal representation also depends on whether your case meets certain other criteria. This includes whether the Legal Aid Department considers it reasonable to fund the case.

There are different forms of publicly-funded legal representation and the type of help required will depend on the type of case and the work required to help resolve the case.

For more information about the different types of publicly-funded legal representation you should contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Which courts are covered by publicly-funded legal representation

The most common courts which are covered are:-

  • county courts (except cases allocated to the small claims track)
  • magistrates’ courts - for civil proceedings such as matrimonial cases
  • the High Court and Court of Appeal
  • appeals to the House of Lords.

Publicly-funded legal representation does not cover representation at a coroner’s court or at most tribunals except for:-

  • the Employment Appeal Tribunal
  • Lands Tribunals.

Which cases are covered by publicly-funded legal representation

Examples of cases covered publicly-funded legal representation:-

  • housing - including eviction, repairs, rent arrears etc.
  • debts - to recover debts by going to court
  • consumer problems - compensation for faulty goods or services
  • employment – appeals to the Employment Appeal Tribunal from the Employment Tribunal but not representation at the Employment Tribunal itself
  • appeals to the High Court from tribunals such as appeals from Social Security Commissioners’ decisions and High Court immigration appeals.

Personal injury cases are not generally covered by publicly-funded legal representation because, for cases such as these, you are expected to enter into a conditional fee agreement with a solicitor (see under heading Other sources of legal help). However, if the overall costs are expected to be unusually high, some publicly-funded legal representation may be available.

For more information about conditional fee agreements and publicly-funded legal representation for personal injury cases, contact a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Publicly-funded legal representation may cover the costs of non-family mediation as well as those of court proceedings. Mediation is a process of negotiation where the parties are helped by a neutral mediator to find a solution acceptable to both of them. Work in relation to mediation will be paid for only if it is considered to be reasonable.

Some family cases will be considered more suitable for family mediation through publicly-funded legal representation rather than publicly-funded legal representation being made available for court proceedings.

What are the financial conditions

If you are getting benefits

If you are on income support, the guarantee credit of Pension Credit or income-based jobseeker's allowance, you will qualify for free publicly-funded legal representation. If you are not getting one of these benefits, you have to meet capital and income conditions.

Capital

You will qualify for free publicly-funded legal representation if you have capital of under £8,000 and also meet income conditions. If you have capital over £8,000, you will not be able to get publicly-funded legal representation. If you have capital between £3,000 and £8,000, you will have to pay anything over £3,000 as a contribution to costs. If you have a partner, your partner’s capital will also be taken into account unless there is a conflict of interest between the two of you.

Income

If your gross monthly income is over £2,288, you will not qualify for publicly-funded legal representation. If your gross monthly income is £2,228 or less you will qualify as long as your monthly disposable income is not more than £621. Disposable income is the amount that you have after deductions have been made for national insurance, tax, rent, certain other necessary expenses and allowances for dependants. If you have a monthly disposable income of £268 or more, you will have to pay a monthly contribution. If you have a partner, your partner’s income will also be taken into account except where this is inappropriate, for example, where there is a conflict of interest between the two of you.

Extra costs you may have to pay

If you are awarded money or property as a result of work carried out through publicly-funded legal representation, your solicitor’s costs may be taken from the award and you will receive what is left. This deduction is called the statutory charge. In some cases, however, this statutory charge will not be taken from the award, for example, in family mediation cases or if the money is for maintenance.

If the statutory charge has to be paid, payment can be postponed if the charge relates to your home or the home of your dependants. The statutory charge can also be postponed where it is to be paid out of money which is to be used to buy a home for yourself or your dependants. Your solicitor will give you more information about the effects of the statutory charge before you decide to go ahead with your case.

If you receive publicly-funded legal representation and you lose the case, you may be ordered to pay the legal costs of the other side if the court considers this would be reasonable.

How to apply

You should apply through a solicitor who does publicly-funded legal representation work. The solicitor will ask you to fill out an application form, which includes details of your income and capital. The solicitor will then send the form to the Legal Aid Department, which will assess your financial eligibility for publicly-funded legal representation.

If publicly-funded legal representation is granted but you are also required to pay a contribution, the contributions must be paid monthly, for as long as the case lasts.

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For cases involving criminal proceedings you may be eligible for help through legal aid. This could cover the cost of representation by solicitors or barristers, and for bail applications. Getting criminal legal aid depends mainly on whether it is ‘in the interests of justice’ that you are legally represented.

Criminal legal aid does not cover you if you bring a criminal prosecution yourself.

Which cases are covered by criminal legal aid

Criminal legal aid is usually granted in the following cases:-

  • if you are likely to go to prison if convicted
  • if you are likely to lose your job if convicted
  • if you cannot follow what is happening in the trial because of mental or physical disability or language problems
  • where children are involved in care proceedings, an application for a contact order (if they are the subject of a care order), or adoption proceedings in the magistrates’ courts
  • to children or their parents, if a child is charged with or convicted of a criminal offence
  • for appeals against criminal court decisions
  • contempt of court proceedings.

Minor offences such as motoring offences are not usually eligible for criminal legal aid.

How to apply

You can obtain forms from the court dealing with the case. These should be returned to the court which will decide whether to grant criminal legal aid.

For more information, visit the Legal Services Commission website, where there is a leaflet called A practical guide to Criminal Defence Services. The address is: www.legalservices.gov.uk/public/help/leaflets.asp.

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Depending on the nature of the matter you may be able to get legal help from other sources. Some of these are listed below.

Fixed fee interview

Some solicitors may give up to half an hour’s legal advice for a fixed fee. Some schemes may offer free advice. This can be useful if you want to get an idea of whether you have a case which is worth defending or pursuing.

The fixed fee interview scheme does not depend on your income or savings - the charge will be the same for everyone.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau will refer you to solicitors who can offer this service. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Trade unions

Trade unions may provide free legal representation for work related problems including travel to or from work. Free union representation may be more suitable for you than legal aid. This is because you will not have to make a financial contribution.

Motoring organisations

Motoring organisations may offer a cheap or free legal advisory service if you are a member.

Legal expenses insurance

Some insurance companies offer policies which cover the expenses of certain legal matters, for example, consumer disputes, personal injuries, employment problems and motoring offences. It is important for you to consider carefully what the policy offers. Many policies will exclude certain kinds of legal expenses of, for example, matrimonial disputes, or may not meet the total cost of claims that are covered.

Other organisations like Which? (previously the Consumers’ Association) offer a legal advisory service if you pay a subscription.

For more information about Which?, see General organisations that help with consumer complaints.

Law centres

In some areas, there are law centres which give free legal advice. The cases that they tend to specialise in are housing, employment, immigration, juvenile crime and welfare benefits. A law centre may take up a case where legal aid is not available, although some may also provide legal aid.

You can get the address of your local law centre from the Law Centres Federation. The address of the Law Centres Federation is:-

Duchess House
18-19 Warren Street
London W1P 5DB
Tel: 020 7387 8570
Fax: 020 7387 8360
Email: info@lawcentres.org.uk
Website: www.lawcentres.org.uk

Conditional fee agreements

In all civil non-family cases you may enter into a conditional fee agreement with your solicitor. This means that if you lose the case, you will only have to pay the costs of the other side and, depending on the agreement, the solicitor’s expenses, including any barrister’s fees. If you win the case, you will pay your solicitor a higher fee. In certain cases, you can take out a special insurance policy which can cover your costs if you lose the case.

If you are thinking about signing up to a conditional fee agreement, you should read the conditions of the agreement very carefully. You might want to get advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

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