Legal Aid allows people who would not otherwise be able to afford it to get help for their legal problems. The Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission provide funding to help people who qualify to get legal advice and representation in the event of a case going to court
Payment of Legal Aid
- Civil legal assistance helps people to get legal advice and representation in civil cases
- Criminal legal assistance helps people who have been charged with a criminal offence to get legal advice and representation
Legal aid is effectively paid through three different schemes, Advice and Assistance, Civil Legal Aid and Criminal Legal Aid.
Advice and Assistance
Advice and assistance helps to pay for advice from a solicitor on any point of Northern Ireland law, for example trying to settle a dispute without going to court. It may also cover their solicitor representing them in court – this is called ABWOR – “assistance by way of representation”.
Depending on your financial circumstances you may have to pay a contribution towards your advice and assistance in civil matters.
Advice and assistance covers a wide range of matters, so long as they are matters of Northern Ireland law and you qualify financially. This could include advice on
- disputes over children
- employment matters
- welfare issues such as housing
Your solicitor will decide whether you meet the financial eligibility limits under the Advice and Assistance scheme.
Civil legal aid
Civil legal aid may provide funding for a solicitor to put your case to the court. It covers the preparation work as well as the hearing itself, providing funding for barristers, experts (most cases begin with advice and assistance and civil legal aid may be the next step, if necessary).
Examples of issues that civil legal aid might help with could be:
- divorce and other matters affecting family and children
- actions for compensation for injuries resulting from an accident, or medical negligence
The granting of Civil Legal Aid is determined by the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission and is usually subject to a financial eligibility test and may require you to pay some contribution.
Criminal legal aid
Criminal legal aid may provide funding if someone is under police investigation or facing criminal charges.
A person being interviewed by the police in connection with criminal charges is entitled to free legal aid for police station advice. This scheme is not means tested and you will not be required to make any contributions.
A defendant’s solicitor may also be able to apply, on their behalf, for legal aid, advice and assistance, granted under what is known as the “Green Form” scheme, for initial consultations. The solicitor will assess a person’s means and determine their financial eligibility under the “Green Form” scheme.
If the charges are subsequently brought to court a solicitor may be able to apply to the court for the grant of a criminal legal aid certificate. In Northern Ireland the decision whether to grant legal aid is taken by the court and criminal legal aid is available for proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court, the Crown Court and the Court of Appeal.
The granting of criminal legal aid by the court is dependant on a defendant passing a ‘means test’ (that his means are insufficient for him to pay for his own defence) and a ‘merits test’ (that it is in the interests of justice he should have free legal aid).
A number of factors are taken into account in deciding whether to grant legal aid and these include:
- whether a loss of liberty is likely if the defendant is found guilty
- whether the defendant is subject to a previous suspended sentence which might be activated if found guilty of the present charge
- is a loss of livelihood likely if found guilty
- is a substantial question of law involved
- can the defendant understand the proceedings
- will expert cross-examination of expert witnesses be required.
How to apply for Legal Aid
All applications for legal aid should be made via a solicitor. A solicitor will be able to advise whether a person would qualify for a grant of legal aid in light of all the circumstances relating to the case. If you do not have a solicitor the Law Society will be able to provide a list of solicitors in your area.