Legal aid UK: who is eligible including criminal and civil cases, rules in Scotland - and how to apply

Legal aid is available to help people facing criminal and civil cases - however it is means tested

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

It is a key part of the justice system, and without legal aid many people wouldn’t be able to access representation in court cases.

However, not everyone qualifies for legal aid, and it is not just those accused of committing a crime who can get it.

And across the country those providing representation in the criminal justice system are involved in an ongoing struggle to have their legal aid rates increased. Barristers in England and Wales are due to stage a series of strikes over the issue in June and July.

But who can get legal aid and how do people get it? This is what you need to know.

What is legal aid?

First introduced in 1949 in the UK, legal aid is a type of government assistance which can help meet the costs of legal advice and representation in the courts.

Legal aid is available for those facing criminal and civil cases, but not everyone is eligible for it.Legal aid is available for those facing criminal and civil cases, but not everyone is eligible for it.
Legal aid is available for those facing criminal and civil cases, but not everyone is eligible for it.

It can pay for some or all of an eligible person’s fees and is available for criminal and civil cases.

When it was first introduced around 80% of people were eligible, however eligibility has changed over the years.

In England and Wales, it is administered by the Legal Aid Agency which is part of the Ministry of Justice.

Whether a person is granted legal aid for criminal cases is subject to means testing.

However, according to the Law Society some applications for legal aid for civil cases are not means tested, for example care cases and mental health tribunal cases.

As well as criminal cases there are other areas where people may be able to apply for legal aid, these include:

  • Asylum and immigration, including asylum applications and applications to be identified as a victim of trafficking
  • Community care ie disputes about the quality of care in hospitals
  • Debt
  • Discrimination
  • Education - someone can get legal aid if they disagree with a special educational needs decision about their child.
  • Family, ie for applications on forced marriage protection orders
  • Housing - including unlawful eviction claims
  • Mental health
  • Welfare benefits and council tax reduction

Is it available in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Yes - but it is administered by different bodies in both countries. Legal aid in Scotland is administered by the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) and by the Legal Services Agency in Northern Ireland.

Although there are differing rules governing legal aid in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is subject to means testing like in England in Wales.

Why is it needed?

Legal aid is required to make sure everyone gets access to representation to ensure the delivery of justice.

Those facing serious charges in a criminal court may not be able to afford legal counsel particularly if they are on a low income. So legal aid would be needed to provide it so they have a fair trial.

Who can get legal aid?

If someone is arrested in connection with an offence, legal advice at the police station is free.

The Law Society website states: “Ask the police to call the duty solicitor, or another named solicitor if you know one.

“If you’re going to be interviewed by the police, it’s important that a solicitor is there to advise you before and during the interview.”

Any legal advice or representation needed after leaving the police station is means tested.

The Law Society states: “Not everyone is able to get criminal legal aid, and in the Crown Court you may have to pay towards some or all of your legal costs.”

According to the Government in order to claim legal aid people need to show:

  • their case is eligible for legal aid
  • the problem is serious
  • they cannot afford to pay for legal costs

The Government website says someone could get legal aid for the following reasons:

  • they or their family are at risk of abuse or serious harm, for example domestic violence or forced marriage
  • they are at risk of homelessness or losing your home
  • they have been accused of a crime, face prison or detention
  • they are being discriminated against
  • they need family mediation
  • they are adding legal arguments or bringing a case under the Human Rights Act

However, it goes on to say people need to show they are unable to afford to pay for this help, and may have to pay some money towards the legal costs of the case or pay costs back later.

How to apply?

Applications are carried out by the legal adviser or family mediator. If the person qualifies the Government pays their costs directly to the legal representative.

The applicant would need to provide their legal representative with information such as benefits received and income, savings and spending - including pay slips and bank statements. They would also need to provide copies of evidence relating to their case such as court documents.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland applications are also carried out through solicitors.

For legal advice at a police station police custody officers can help people obtain this either over the phone, or from the station’s duty solicitor or from the person’s own solicitor.

Related topics: