Legal aid helps people who can't afford to pay for legal advice or representation in court by a solicitor or barrister. There are three different schemes that pay legal aid for people needing legal advice and representation if a case goes to court.
Applying for legal aid
All applications for legal aid should be made by a solicitor. A solicitor can tell you if would qualify for legal aid when they know the circumstances in your case. If you don't have a solicitor, check the Law Society's list of solicitors.
You can also contact your local Citizen's Advice Bureau, Law Centre or Advice Centre.
Legal aid is available through three different schemes:
- legal advice and assistance
- civil legal aid
- criminal legal aid
Your solicitor will tell you if you are able to get funding from any of these schemes.
Legal advice and assistance
Legal advice and assistance allows you to get advice from a solicitor on any point of Northern Ireland law. It can cover many legal problems such as personal injury, divorce, disputes over children, employment matters and housing.
Under this scheme, solicitors can:
- draft documents
- writing letters on your behalf
- negotiate on your behalf
Depending on your financial circumstances, you may have to pay something towards your advice and assistance but this will be no more than £134. If you are asked to pay towards the cost of any advice, you will pay your solicitor directly.
Advice and assistance for children
If advice is needed for a child under 18 years, the child's parents or guardian or other responsible adult must ask a solicitor for advice. The financial means of whoever looks after the child will usually be taken into account when making a decision on getting legal aid.
Advice for people unable to attend in person
If the person seeking advice is unable to see the solicitor in person and the solicitor cannot visit them, then someone else may talk to the solicitor on that person's behalf.
Legal aid for Civil Court cases
There are three ways which legal aid can help you be represented in court for civil cases.
- Representation in the Lower Courts
- Representation in the Higher Courts
- Exceptional funding
Representation in the Lower Courts
Representation Lower Courts will allow you to get a solicitor to prepare and represent you in most civil cases in the Magistrates' Courts.
The types of cases heard in the Magistrates' Courts can include separation, maintenance, cases involving children, protection orders like a non-molestation Order and paternity cases.
Representation Lower Courts can also be used for proceedings before a Mental Health Review and for prisoners making parole applications.
Depending on your financial circumstances, you may have to pay something towards your representation but this will be no more than £134. If you are asked to pay part of the cost of any advice, you will need to pay your solicitor directly.
Representation in the Higher Courts
Representation in the Higher Courts will allow you to have a solicitor and sometimes a barrister to prepare your case and represent you in court on a civil matter.
Most civil cases are heard in the Higher Courts like the County Court, High Court, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, Lands Tribunal and the Enforcement of Judgements Office.
Representation in the Higher Courts is not available for cases in a Coroners Court or for most tribunals or libel or slander cases. Although you may be able to get advice for these type of cases under the Advice and Assistance scheme.
The decision to give you legal aid under this scheme will be made by the Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland. If you need to pay any contributions towards the cost of your case, you will need to pay it to the Legal Services Agency. Any payments can be paid over 12 months unless you have savings which means the cost is payable immediately in a lump sum.
Exceptional Funding allows a solicitor and sometimes a barrister to represent you in cases, like inquests which are not covered by any other scheme.
The decision to give you legal aid will be made by the Legal Services Agency. If you need to pay any contributions towards the cost of your case, you will need to pay it to your solicitor.
Legal aid for Criminal Court cases
Legal aid for Criminal Court cases allows a solicitor and sometimes a barrister to represent you in a criminal case. These cases take place in the Magistrates' Courts, Crown Court and Court of Appeal.
The Court has the power to grant free criminal legal aid and it is only available to a person charged with a criminal offence. Legal aid cannot be applied for to someone bringing a private prosecution.
The decision by the Court to give criminal legal aid will be based on your financial circumstances. The Court will have to agree it is in the interest of justice that you should be given legal aid for your case.
Your application for criminal legal aid must be made to the Court. You will have to tell the Court about your finances.
Your solicitor is the best person to tell you if you might get free criminal legal aid.
What your solicitor will need from you
If you ask your solicitor if you are entitled to legal aid, your solicitor will need you to bring information and documents with you to your first appointment so they can decide what help, if any, you are entitled to.
To save time you should bring the following to your solicitor.
- National Insurance number
- all information about your income and savings
- bank/building society/credit union statements/savings books
- letter from Social Security Agency detailing any benefits you get
- name and address of your employer
- any other relevant documents to support your case
Legal aid for victims of domestic abuse
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, you may be able to get help with your legal costs to protect you and your children.
Appealing a decision
If you are refused legal aid, you can ask for the decision to be looked at again.
There are ways to review and appeal the decision and your solicitor can tell you what options are open to you.
Sometimes if you win a case which was funded by legal aid, then you have to pay back the cost of your legal aid. This is called the Statutory Charge. Your solicitor will tell you if this charge is likely to apply to your case.