How can I access legal advice and representation when I can’t afford it?

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For many people, identifying that they have a legal problem can be much easier than resolving that problem. This is often because either people don’t know who to turn to, or even if they find the right lawyer, the legal costs might not be affordable. Affordability has always been a key factor in the inaccessibility of the law, particularly for those on low incomes.

Legal aid is a scheme designed to help pay for representation by a solicitor or an advocate in court. It is available for both civil and criminal cases, but affordability and accessibility issues arise much more often for civil cases. Civil legal aid is means-tested. This means that depending on your income, assets and savings, legal advice may be free, or you may have to make a contribution towards the cost, but it makes legal costs much more affordable.

In recent years, the legal aid scheme has been heavily criticised for making its financial eligibility criteria too narrow. Many homeowners have been determined to be ineligible for legal aid on the basis that they had “sufficient capital” to afford their own legal advice. However, the issue was that this was merely “imagined capital”. Financial eligibility included a £100,000 ‘Mortgage Cap’, which meant that the level of secured debt that could be disregarded when assessing an individual’s actual interest in their property was limited and attributed capital to individuals that they simply did not have.

This has now changed.

Recent changes to the legal aid eligibility criteria that came into effect in January 2021 now allow more homeowners on low incomes, and especially those who have suffered domestic violence, to access legal aid in various court proceedings, including family proceedings. The standard ‘Mortgage Disregard Cap’ has been removed, and now the full value of debt secured on property will be deducted when assessing the capital of an individual, potentially granting legal aid funding to applicants who may otherwise have failed means-testing based on the unrealistic deduction limits that previously existed.

Previously, as a result of receiving compensation payments from particular compensation schemes, some individuals applying for legal aid failed to pass the financial eligibility criteria, due to these payments being classed as income or capital. However, there is also now a mandatory disregard for money received from certain schemes such as any payments under the Vaccine Damage Payment Act, or the Infected Blood Support Schemes. A discretionary approach will also be applied to an additional 4 schemes:

  • Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme
  • National Emergencies Trust
  • We Love Manchester Fund
  • London Emergencies Trust Fund

These amendments to the eligibility rules means funded legal representation will now be more accessible to many vulnerable people who otherwise may have been unable to access the justice they need.

So where does Legal Utopia come in?

Whilst the financial eligibility criteria changes will help more people access the legal representation they need, there is still the question of the situations in which legal aid is even available.

When using the Legal Utopia ‘Legal Checker’ service with an individual account, if your legal issue would potentially be eligible for legal aid (subject to financial eligibility), the Legal Checker will automatically identify this for you, and provide a direct portal to the government checker for financial eligibility. Also, for those qualifying legal problems that fall within the scope of civil legal aid, you will have access to the diagnosis, legal guidance, services, portals, resources, and legal aid services free of charge.

This free support from Legal Utopia is available in a variety of different areas including: Family Law, Civil Law, Property Law, and Employment Law. Whether you’ve been discriminated against in the workplace, suffered domestic abuse, or you’re facing debts that might result in you losing your home, Legal Utopia’s free support will help you identify your legal issue and the next steps to take.

If the Legal Checker result notifies you that your legal problem may qualify for legal aid assistance, you should consider contacting the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) in-app for further support and assistance in assessing your financial eligibility to claim legal aid funding.

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