Many people who become involved in a civil legal dispute are unable to hire legal help. Because everyone has the right to defend themselves in a Court of Law, which includes the right to a fair trial and equality before the law, the state may provide some legal assistance in the form of legal aid.
Civil legal aid is given to people who are in dispute which is not criminal. If you are in a dispute, for example, with someone over a breach of contract, you could apply for legal aid. This is used to pay for your legal help or lawyer, and may sometimes have to be paid back partially or in full when the case is over.
You can get legal aid for a range of things, such as family and domestic disputes including custody care of children, division of property if a marriage dissolves, or domestic violence. Other scenarios include disputes over debt, whether you’re suing or being sued by someone, or employment disputes. You can’t apply for this sort of aid if you are getting a divorce.
In a criminal offence, you can apply for legal aid as soon as you are charged with an offence or receive a court summons. Again, there are some smaller offences (such as driving offences) which are sometimes not eligible for this.
To apply for legal aid, you will need to show that there is a dispute worth answering to in court, and you will need to prove that you do not have the means to pay your own court fees. This will mean proving your income and listing all your assets, including your house and car.
The decision on whether you are eligible for legal aid will be made by the Legal Services Agency (LSA). They make the decision on the basis of whether you can afford a lawyer and whether legal aid is justified in your case. If your case is not a domestic one – for example if it is to do with property – the LSA may decide whether or not to award legal aid based on the likelihood of the outcome.
The LSA will also assess how much of the aid you will have to pay back, depending on a range of factors. If you will be required to pay anything back, the LSA will tell you this at the time of the grant. The good news is you will never be asked to pay back more than the amount the LSA specifies, and sometimes it may be less.