If you find yourself in a situation where you need legal advice you’ll probably feel extremely worried and confused about where to turn. The idea of going to court can be intimidating and the expense of professional legal advice can be off-putting. If you are on a low income or in receipt of certain benefits you could be entitled to free legal aid to help with some of the costs.
When can you get legal aid and what does it cover?
Legal aid is available for help with certain types of civil legal cases. A civil legal case is one in which you have a dispute with a person, company or other organisation. This includes cases to do with your home, relationships (separation or divorce), or personal money (including debts and problems receiving benefits). It is also available for criminal matters (where you have been charged of committing a crime). The rules for this are slightly different, and this section only deals with legal aid for civil cases.
In order to receive legal aid you must be in a position where you could not afford to pay your legal costs yourself. Your income and savings will both be taken into account, along with your partner’s income and savings (unless your partner is the opponent in the case). The court will also take into account the type of case you have and how likely it is you will win when making their decision.
If you want to check whether you are likely to be eligible for legal aid you can complete the legal aid calculator at http://www.communitylegaladvice.org.uk/calculators/eligiCalc?execution=e1s1which should give you some idea of what help you may be entitled to.
Legal aid is paid directly to your solicitor or adviser; you do not receive any money yourself. Even if you qualify for legal aid you may have to pay some costs yourself depending on your financial situation. The payment you have to make may be in the form of a lump sum, monthly installments until your case is closed, or a charge from the money or property you gain from the case.
Alternative options if you are not eligible for legal aid
There are some cases which will not be eligible for legal aid. If you are not eligible for legal aid you can look into alternative options such as:
- A legal advice or law centre, which give free advice. There are law centres in South Manchester (0161 225 5111), Rochdale (01706 657 766), Oldham (0161 627 0925)Trafford (0161 872 3669), Wythenshawe (0161 498 0905) and Bury (0161 272 0666). You can find more advice on law centres at LawCentres.org
- A conditional (‘no-win-no-fee’) agreement. These are advertised commercially and are particularly targeted at personal injury claims.
- A payout from legal expenses insurance. For more information on this see our Insurance section.
- Help from your (or your partner’s) trade union. Depending on what your dispute is relating to, your union may be able to offer assistance, particularly if it is an employment related issue.
- You can also get advice from the CAB (Tameside CAB can be contacted on 0161 330 2156). See below for more information about the help they may be able to offer.
For more information on legal aid see LegalAidAgency.gov
Another option if you are not eligible for legal aid is to consider representing yourself. You will need to think very carefully before deciding to do this and prepare carefully for the case. Even if you haven’t taken any legal advice before you get to court, there may be a ‘duty solicitor’ there on the day who can give you free legal advice and may even be able to take on your case if it is relatively straightforward. If you intend to make use of this service then the earlier you arrive at court on the day of your hearing the better, as this will give the duty solicitor more chance to be able to advise you.
If you do have to go to court you may feel apprehensive about what the process will involve. Knowing what to expect can help you feel calmer and more prepared. It’s really important you attend court whenever your case is being heard, and if you are representing yourself you will need to be able to remain calm enough to put forward the facts and argue your case without letting things get heated.
The process you will go through depends on what type of court you attend. Most cases relating to money being owed are dealt with in the County Court. Claims for small amounts are generally straightforward and there is usually no need for those involved to use solicitors. Hearings are private and informal and there will be no jury present, just a judge. If your case is to do with money then the judge’s decision will usually be recorded on the Register of County Court Judgments. Banks and credit agencies can look at this register when deciding whether to lend to you in future.
Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB)
The Citizen’s Advice Bureau offers information and advice on a wide range of topics including the legal system and your rights. If you have to attend court then you may wish to make an appointment to see someone at your local CAB who will be able to give you general information about the court process and some advice if you are considering representing yourself. To make an appointment contact Tameside CAB on 0161 330 2156 or see http://www.tamesidecab.org.uk/core_advice.html.
Alternatively the CAB run an online advice service if you would rather look up the information for yourself. You can access the legal services section of this at AdviceGuide.org.uk