Legal aid- what is it? Why do we need it? Who uses it? These are all questions that I aim to answer in my post. You have probably all heard of legal aid- how can you not have heard of it with the media attention that it has attracted recently? If you haven’t heard of legal aid, you’ll have seen its effects- the criminal on the soap that you watched last night? See how they had a solicitor by their side immediately? Legal aid.
Legal aid is designed to help meet the costs of legal advice, and alternative dispute resolution such as mediation and representation in a tribunal. It is designed to protect the most vulnerable in society, allowing them access to justice and legal advice that they otherwise could not afford. The main stipulation of whether you receive legal aid is that you show that you cannot afford to pay for legal costs. Often, obviously, you find yourself in a situation where you need a solicitor unexpectedly and have not got the funds to cover this, this is where legal aid steps in. The case that you are involved in and seeking legal aid for must be serious, and the likelihood of success is considered amongst other things.
Examples of situations in which somebody may get legal aid are if they or their family are at risk of abuse or serious harm, they are at risk of homelessness, have been accused of a crime, or need family mediation. The assessment for legal aid in civil cases (i.e. non-criminal cases) is usually made by a legal adviser or family mediator, but you can get guidance from the government website too. If you have been charged with a criminal offence, you would need to ask your solicitor or barrister whether you are eligible for legal aid to cover your legal costs, and if you have been arrested and held at a police station, a police custody officer will help you get legal aid.
Early legal advice in a case is extremely important, meaning that people can begin to deal with their case before it gets any more serious. Cuts to legal aid, made under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, mean that less people are able to access legal aid than ever before. It had led to more people representing themselves in court which can create problems due to lack of understanding of the court process. Access to justice is a fundamental democratic right, and removing it creates problems for litigants simply unable to pursue their case due to lack of legal knowledge, lack of access to legal advice and lack of time to put together and present their case. This can result in more problems for the court and legal professionals, as cases not dealt with early due to lack of access to legal aid funding can develop further to a point where they are in crisis and need immediate attention.